Successful Sampling: Partnering for Healthy Communities

Heather Wood pulls a sample from Chairman Tom Quinn's kitchen faucet.

Dunn County Land and Water Conservation Division staff recently tested nearly 1,000 private wells over the span of eight weeks using the Comprehensive Homeowners Package through UW-Stevens Point Water & Environmental Analysis Lab (WEAL). This test includes nitrates, hardness, several metals, a screen for atrazine and related herbicides, and several other water chemistry parameters. The test would typically cost a homeowner around $160, but through the use of ARPA funding the testing was completed at no-cost to participants.

The ambitious well-sampling project was first imagined by Chase Cummings, Dunn County Conservationist, and Heather Wood, Water Resources Specialist. In 2022, the Dunn County Planning, Resources, and Development Committee and the Land Conservation Committee approached their department to ask how remaining ARPA funds might be used support ground water initiatives. This also fell in line with the recommendations made in 2018 by an ad-hoc committee created by the County Board with the express purpose of creating a plan to address groundwater issues within Dunn County.

“Many of our community members are concerned about PFAS in their drinking water,” said Wood. “Any time there’s a story on the local news, our office gets phone calls. So, we knew we wanted to focus on water sampling and outreach.”

They developed three proposals, each with a varying number of sample sizes at 500, 750, and 1,000. The common thread in each of the proposals was town hall sampling, including PFAS testing that would, unfortunately, be too cost prohibitive for all private wells.

“As I explained to the committee, we knew it was a very ambitious number but I also believed that we could find participants and do the work,” Wood recalled. The committee voted on the highest number, and the full board approved the use of ARPA funds for the testing costs.

Next, Wood worked with the county web support specialist, Krista Vind, to create an online registration system and develop promotional materials. They first turned to the town clerks to aid in their initial outreach efforts. “They are the first line of communication for smaller towns,” she said. “In a township of 500 people, the clerk knows everyone.” Informational flyers were circulated with tax bills, distributed via emails, and displayed in town halls during elections.

As the project took shape, the Public Health Department reached out to explore ways they partner on the project. Together, the two departments developed a postcard that was mailed to most addresses in Dunn County. This mailing was funded by Healthy Environment Action Team (HEAT), which was created as part of Health Dunn Right initiative.

“I didn’t know exactly when the postcard was going out, but one morning I came back to my desk after a meeting to 13 voicemails. I knew then that Public Health had done their thing,” recalled Wood. Before postcard mailout, they had about 50 participants registered. After the mailout, Wood says their office essentially became a scripted call center for the first two weeks of December, receiving nearly 400 phone calls and 400 online registrations. By April, they had reached their signup targets.

With participants secured, Wood began to schedule the testing, creating test batches and assignments for all the Land and Water Conservation Division staff. The Conservation Alliance of Dunn County also provided funding to hire a full-time intern to assist with the sampling.

A sampling day began by gathering pre-labeled testing kits and preparing a cooler to collect the samples. Before each visit, a staff member connected with participants to explain the sample collection process. Samples could be taken from the kitchen faucet (if unsoftened), the tap next to the pressure tank, or an outside faucet. The water also needed to run for several minutes before collection. After collecting the tests, they were properly stored at the department office and sent to WEAL for testing.

Over the course of eight weeks, staff collected 977 total samples from across the county. Although it required significant staff time, it also provided a valuable opportunity for staff to connect with a ride range of community members, many of whom might not regularly interface with county conservation staff.

Tom Quinn, Chairman of the Planning, Resources, and Development Committee, agreed that this project provided an opportunity to build connections. “It’s important work, and it’s good that the staff can get out and show the community exactly what kind of work the land conservation department does,” he said.

For Wood, getting out into the community and seeing the level of interest was one of the most rewarding parts of the process. “At the county level, we are the local resources, and it’s our job to act as a translator of the data and information,” said Wood.

Staff were able talk with people about several common misconceptions related water quality. “Many people think that if their water tastes and smells fine, then it’s fine,” said Wood. However, many of the contaminants are tasteless and odorless. Some of the private wells sampled did test positive for arsenic or lead. Of the 22 town hall wells that were tested, 14 tested positive for PFAS, although all still met the current health standards.

Others were concerned they would be forced to fix any issues that might arise, but that was another misconception. “We know that remediation can be expensive, and it’s not our goal to force any one into that situation,” said Wood. Instead, their goal was to educate homeowners on the importance of frequent well testing, and the next steps they can take. When people received their results from WEAL, they also received information about the tested compounds, as well as current financial assistance available to eligible users of contaminated wells through the Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources.

Many people were also curious about how their results would be used. Wood explained the data will be used build a Dunn County data set, which will provide a snapshot of the general ground water conditions within the county. No personal information will be used in any of the reporting.

The report for this specific project will be provided to the Dunn County Board of Supervisors and made publicly available during the first half of 2024. Results will also be added to the existing Dunn County Well Water Quality Map.

“So many people were receptive and supportive of the project, from elected official to homeowners to farmers,” said Wood. The division still receives calls about well-testing, and they hope to offer more opportunities.

Health & Conservation

To learn more about the intersection of conservation and public health, connect with our Health & Conservation Committee.

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