Summer 2007

Groundwater research verified how quickly nearby contaminants washed pollution through a sinkhole into groundwater and seeped out to a discharge area. Pollution spreads wide, deep, and quickly where the rock is fractured near the surface. Photo: Bob Rashid

Gathering Groundwater Resources

A Unique Wisconsin Institution Safeguards a Precious Resource

By Peter Boger

One of Wisconsin’s greatest treasures is perhaps its least visible —groundwater. The state is blessed with over one quadrillion gallons of groundwater (enough to cover the state to a depth of 100 feet!) and is highly dependent on this resource, using more than one billion gallons every day. More than 70 percent of the state’s residents rely upon groundwater as a source of drinking water, including 97 percent of all inland communities.

In Wisconsin, like many states, responsibility for groundwater management and research falls in the purview of several agencies, including the Departments of Agriculture, Trade & Consumer Protection; Commerce; Health and Family Services; Natural Resources; and Transportation, as well as the University of Wisconsin System. To avoid a cacophony of overlapping decisions and redundant research, however, Wisconsin has developed a nationally unique institution — the Wisconsin Groundwater Coordinating Council (GCC), established by a 1984 state law.

The GCC helps state agencies streamline groundwater policymaking decisions and ensures that agencies’ research efforts are complementary. Moreover, the GCC efficiently directs funding towards Wisconsin’s most pressing groundwater issues and leverages funding from the federal government and other sources.

Through the joint solicitation process for funding research, the GCC’s members have provided more than $13 million to over 330 projects characterizing threats to Wisconsin’s groundwater supplies and developing new methods for testing, protecting, and remediating groundwater.

This year, the UW Water Resources Institute (WRI) is helping the GCC celebrate more than 20 years of groundwater research with the publication of a pamphlet recounting many significant projects funded through the council over the past two decades. As part of the GCC, the WRI coordinates the UW System’s funding of GCC groundwater projects. Among the many significant projects that the WRI has supported through the GCC are a 2001 study that created a method to estimate more accurately groundwater recharge from rainfall; a 2002 study finding that rain gardens are highly effective at reducing stormwater runoff and increasing urban aquifer recharge; and a 2005 study that compiled exemplar case studies of Wisconsin municipalities incorporating groundwater into comprehensive land use planning.

ASC Assistant Director for Research and Outreach, James Hurley, helps to review research proposals submitted to WRI through the GCC process, notes that the benefits of the GCC’s coordinated research efforts are hard to overstate.

“Without a doubt, this program has enabled Wisconsin to be a leader in groundwater research in the nation,” said Hurley. “The quality of proposals submitted each year rivals those funded by the NSF and U.S. EPA. It is so important to make these research results available for scientists around the world.”

The new WRI pamphlet also recounts various ways in which GCC-supported research has translated directly into policy changes that have protected Wisconsin groundwater from threats by arsenic, nitrates from fertilizer applications, pesticides, and excessive drawdowns of aquifers due to overdevelopment.

Publication of the pamphlet will be followed later this year by a more in-depth series of fact sheets that highlight connections between the GCC’s research on individual groundwater threats and more robust groundwater protection.

The Aquatic Sciences Center is the administrative home of the
University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute & University of Wisconsin Water Resources Institute.

©2011 University of Wisconsin Board of Regents