It's getting harder to find sites for new city wells

During a recent exploration of unseen Madison spots, I had a chance to find out how hard it is to protect groundwater and find new well sites.

As Madison grows, we need more wells. As more areas become contaminated, wells have to be abandoned, and there are fewer places where you can put a new well.

Exploring an old landfill--now home to Terra

Early last spring, when I found myself on the east side of town, I decided to explore the woods by the state offices at the end of Agriculture Rd.

There was a nice path, but I quickly came to a huge dump.  Part of it was capped (imperfectly), and part was still receiving construction debris and snow removed from parking lots.

Salvaged concrete blocks were piled into mountains. 

Concrete contains chromium--recently found in city tap water.

Deflected by a fence around the property, I turned E and went around the dump.  It turned out the be the home base of Terra Engineering & Construction--for offices and storage of equipment.

I descended into a wetland, then continued N along the fence and a small creek. 

I found several places where chemicals were seeping out of the ground, and leaking into the stream. 
Gobs of green algae in the stream indicated high levels of nitrogen, headed for Mud Lake.

Later I found this had been a landfill site.

Next, I found snow that had been dumped by Terra into the creek from a gate in the fence.  The snow contained a lot of debris--I suspect the dumping was illegal.

Reaching the NE corner, I turned E along the tracks, next to a ditch with dirty water and dozens of old tires.  Mosquitoes breed in the stagnant water trapped in the tires.

Along the tracks were large stacks of old RR ties.  These contain toxic preservatives that can leach out of the wood.

See all the photos.

Looking for a new well location

I filed the photos away, and forgot about the old dump, until today.  That's when I stumbled over a report to Madison's water utility, evaluating five possible areas for a new well* on the East side.

I was surprised to find that one of the possible well sites was just to the west of the old dump and Terra headquarters.

What amazed me most was the map included in the report (on p. 16).  There are lots of old dumps in and around Madison.  There are many potential sources of contamination--marked on the map in a kaleidoscope of colors.

So many areas are already contaminated, or vulnerable to contamination from failures of storage tanks or pipelines, that there aren't many places left for a well.  Out of five potential areas for wells, the study ruled out three.

For example, there's an industrial site along I-90 now owned by GE Health.  The former owner, Ohmeda, contaminated it with toxic chemicals, which GE is trying to clean from the groundwater.

Putting the map down, an image jumped into my mind.  The groundwater of Dane County is like a big lake.  The 340,000 inhabitants of the county are like the passenger of a crowd of ships on the lake.  They are all throwing their garbage into the lake, and at the same time, lowering buckets to draw their drinking water out of the same lake.

The experts at the Water Utility are doing their best to make sure our buckets miss the worst garbage.  But as time passes, it's getting harder and harder to find clean water.

That's why it makes no sense for MG&E to be pumping polluted water into the ground at Odana Hills, as a way of replenishing our groundwater.

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*  A new well for Pressure Zone 4.

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