When Doug Jones and his wife, Sherryl, bought their home in Spring Green 15 years ago, they had a vision of a place where their family could gather, enjoy the beauty of a restored prairie, and where their grandchildren could experience fresh air and a peaceful, rural life. Their land included an 11-acre oxbow lake and sloughs connected to the Lower Wisconsin Riverway.
Over the years, agricultural practices nearby had changed. Neighboring farms increased landspreading of manure. The soil in Spring Green is sandy, so when farmers overapply manure on fields for fertilizer, it leaches into the groundwater aquifer.
With the interconnectedness of water, the aquifer feeds into the sloughs and oxbow lake near the Jones’ home with water polluted with nutrients that feed algae and invasive plants. The visible result is mucky, green, polluted water. But the Jones’ water contamination also included a problem with nitrates.
“We knew about the connection between agricultural pollution and nitrates in drinking water, so we began testing,” said Doug. “With eight grandchildren visiting in the span of six years, we were very concerned that water from our well was unsafe for the grandchildren or our expecting daughters to drink. Our drinking water tested at 22.3 ppm of nitrates which was well beyond the EPA’s maximum of 10 ppm. Our water was unsafe to drink and we wondered about the health of our neighbors.”
Nitrate pollution impacts human health by restricting the ability of blood to deliver enough oxygen to the body (methemoglobinemia). Infants are most susceptible and can suffer from blue baby syndrome, but studies also show links to cancer, thyroid problems and birth defects.
Doug found an ally in Dave Marshall, a water resources management biologist with the Department of Natural Resources who had been monitoring the water quality of parts of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway since the early 2000s. After Dave retired from the DNR, Doug asked him to continue tracking water quality with the help of private grants to install monitoring wells to test for nitrate levels, groundwater flow and contaminants. Doug even gave water testing kits to his neighbors, and more families found that their water was unsafe to drink.
“We organized town meetings to educate residents and encourage more testing,” said Doug. “The highest level of nitrates in a drinking well was over 39 ppm. Families in our area needed help.”
The Jones family asked for help from the DNR as well as town and state elected officials, but Doug says no one had shown any real interest in the area beyond promising to review water testing data in “nitrate alley.”
“Of course the EPA needs to step in,” said Doug. “Our DNR’s mission is to protect our health and the environment. If we can’t get the help we need from the DNR – or if our Governor and state elected officials are putting other agendas before the health of our drinking water and rivers – we need action from the EPA.”
The Jones' story was also highlighted in this piece from the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, "Nitrate in water widespread, current rules no match for it."
Doug Jones moved to Spring Green, Wisconsin in 2000 and is a retired steamfitter. He was born and raised in Prairie du Sac and his father worked for Wisconsin Power and Light. He lived his first 17 1/2 years just above the dam and has always lived about a half mile from the Wisconsin River for nearly all of his life. He has always been interested in our environment and as an Eagle Scout learned you leave the environment a better place than how you found it.
He signed the Petition for Corrective Action to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to encourage the State of Wisconsin and its Department of Natural Resources to fully comply with the Clean Water Act.