Most of the 53 communities in eastern Wisconsin pump water from saturated sandstone deep underground, according to Don Swailes, chief of the DNR’s drinking-water quality program. All rock contains radium, but water held in some deep sandstone aquifers has accumulated the highest doses.
Swailes and other DNR officials will begin negotiating compliance plans with each of the well owners. By December of this year, officials with the 53 water systems must have signed consent orders that establish a timetable for meeting the federal standard of no more than five picocuries of radium per liter of water, Swailes said. A picocurie is a measure of radioactivity, or the pace at which a radioactive element such as radium disintegrates.
“The consent orders will be legally enforceable, and if deadlines are not met, the DNR could penalize a municipality,” Swailes says. The range of penalties could be from $1,000 to $5,000 a day. The original federal deadline for complying with the standard was December 2003, but the DNR negotiated a three-year extension for state communities. “We’re bending over backward to make sure public health is protected while allowing communities to research and implement the most cost-effective way of meeting this radium requirement.”
Waukesha alone faces a price tag of $75 million to $135 million for the compliance options being studied by the city, says water utility general manager Daniel Duchniak. “Our residential water rates could double or triple in a few years,” he contends. “We are pursuing federal and state funds to help pay for this” and soften the blow to customers.
One costly option is to treat water to remove radium. “But with water levels declining in the sandstone aquifer, this is not a viable long-term option,” Duchniak says. Another alternative would be to develop new wells west of the city that would draw water from saturated sandstone containing much less or no radium.
Waukesha also could ask Milwaukee or Oak Creek to sell its Lake Michigan water. This option, however, faces political obstacles in addition to a high cost. Waukesha is outside the Lake Michigan drainage basin, so any water piped there would be considered a diversion. Any new diversion needs the approval of each of the Great Lakes states.
The city had challenged the federal radium standards in court but lost the battle in February when the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., dismissed the case. Waukesha will not appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, Duchniak says. “We’re done fighting the regulation. We’re working toward a long-term solution for our ratepayers.”
Not all of the municipalities face costs of tens of millions of dollars. “Some communities with radium violations are not using wells found in violation of the standard, and those communities might only need to abandon such a well to comply with the federal law,” Swailes says. Green Bay is one example. Though the city provides its residents with Lake Michigan water containing no radium, Green Bay maintains nine wells as an emergency backup. None of the wells has been used in five years or longer, says water utility general manager Bill Nabak. Water in four of those wells exceeds the federal radium standard. Nabak does not want to abandon any of the wells, however. Green Bay could sell water at a profit to nearby municipalities if the DNR would allow it to store treated lake water in each well field, he said. The water, which would be withdrawn when needed, would not be stored long enough to accumulate unhealthful levels of radium.
This technology, known as aquifer storage recovery, is used in 14 other states. This inexpensive belowground storage could take the place of costly treatment plant additions, surface storage tanks and reservoirs.