Beyond the Headlines Madison

Wisconsin's Water Future

Madison Lake Mendota

Water may seem an ordinary and unheralded resource until you stand in the kitchen of a rural home and watch helplessly as a housewife cries because her family can no longer drink the water from her home’s faucets or use it even to cook or bathe.

The family had just discovered the area around their home was part of an atrazine prohibition zone with numerous wells contaminated by the heavily used agricultural chemical.

Before beginning my interview, I had helped the family carry in several large bottles of drinking water they had just purchased from the grocery. They would be used even to fill their dogs’ water bowls.

Such moments have filled my reporting notebooks over the last decade as I covered environmental stories throughout the upper Midwest for the Wisconsin State Journal and, more recently, for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

More often than not, my reporting was about water. Of all the environmental issues we have faced in the last decade, none has been more troubling than the growing threats to safe drinking water and clean lakes and rivers.

It’s a surprising turn of events, considering the progress toward cleanup and restoration that started in the 1970s with the passage of the federal Clean Water Act and other similar legislation.

Yet today, we live with the knowledge that children were poisoned by their drinking water in Flint, Michigan.

Here in Wisconsin – a state long associated with pristine northern lakes and abundant, fresh drinking water – we have been confronted in recent years by the deterioration of not only our drinking and recreational waters but the rollback of the regulations that were put in place to protect them.

A couple of years ago at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, we decided to launch an aggressive investigation into the state of our drinking water.

Traveling the state, we asked people a simple question: Can you drink your water?

The result? We found hundreds of thousands of people whose drinking water was so contaminated that it was unsafe to use. We discovered wells in southwestern Wisconsin contaminated by coal ash from coal burning power plants. We wrote about a town in Kewaunee County where more than 60 percent of private wells were contaminated by dangerous bacteria, much of it from farm run-off. We found lead-lined pipes in Milwaukee contaminating urban water supplies. And we wrote about research that has turned up viruses in the deep aquifers that hold our drinking water in cities such as La Crosse and Madison.

Though our series examined drinking water, the problems extend also to our rivers and lakes. In the summer, I have to be careful where I let my dog swim in the Madison lakes because of deadly blue-green algae, prevalent now because of phosphorous-polluted run-off.

In central Wisconsin, trout streams and lakes actually vanish during hot summer days, dried up due to the depletion of aquifers by growing cities, industry and the irrigation of farm fields.

All of this helps explain why the WHC's 'Wisconsin's Water Future' workshop for reporters and the public is such an important gathering. It also helps illustrate why it is more important than ever that the media keeps water and the struggle to protect it in the headlines.

Newspaper reporters need to bring all of their investigative skills to bear on the threats to our water. They need to dig for data, hold public officials and polluters accountable, ask the hard questions and help seek solutions.

Most important, reporters need to share the voices and the stories of those whose lives have been so disrupted by a loss of something that seems almost preposterous to contemplate – a simple sip of clean water.

Ron Seely is an award-winning science and environmental writer and was the moderator for Wisconsin's Water Future Workshop, which was held April 26th, 2018.


We thank The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for their generous support of this initiative and the Pulitzer Prizes for their partnership.