Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association

Groundwater – A Model Solution

Researchers expand computer simulation tool to study and address nitrate contamination

When agronomy professor Chris Kucharik and his wife, Amy, moved into a subdivision in the Town of Burke in 2006, they weren’t surprised to learn their well water contained quite a bit of nitrate. Nitrate is the most widespread groundwater contaminant in Wisconsin, and it’s often associated with agriculture. Their home, located in rural Dane County, is surrounded by current and former farmlands.

Their nitrate level was around 9 parts per million (ppm), below the maximum contaminant level of 10 ppm set by the Environmental Protection Agency. But that still felt too high for them. Fortunately, the house came with a reverse osmosis system that filters out around 70% of the nitrate in their drinking water. Besides changing the filter annually, they didn’t think about it much. Set it and forget it.

Then, in 2013, Amy became pregnant, and they were jolted out of their complacency. It was time to get their drinking water tested again.

“That was at the top of our list of things to do,” recalls Kucharik, a professor of agronomy at CALS. “We rechecked the water samples to make sure the reverse osmosis system was still functioning correctly.”

Professor of agronomy Chris Kucharik at his kitchen table in his Town of Burke, Wis., home. High levels of nitrate are known to cause health problems in pregnant women and infants, including the life-threatening condition known as blue baby syndrome. In adults, long-term consumption appears to be linked to certain cancers, thyroid problems, and diabetes.

Fortunately for the Kuchariks, their system was doing its job. Unfortunately, nitrate contamination is still a big issue in Wisconsin. There are more than 800,000 private wells in the state, and around 10% of these wells are estimated to have nitrate concentrations exceeding the EPA’s maximum contamination level. In certain agricultural regions, that percentage is reported to be much higher — up near 20–30%.

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