Student researchers studying nitrate levels in area private wells

| Judy Berthiaume

When Katie Wehling and her family moved into their hobby farm 10 miles south of Eau Claire, they loved everything about their new home except that the nitrate levels in their water were elevated, which appears to be a common issue in their township.

“With young children, we are especially concerned about our drinking water,” says Wehling, a 2004 UW-Eau Claire biology graduate.

So when a letter arrived telling them that research students from UW-Eau Claire were working with the Eau Claire City-County Health Department and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources on a nitrate study in their area, they were eager to be part of it.

“I even called my neighbors to tell them to get involved with this project since this is a topic of conversation among families in our area,” says Wehling, a mom to two boys, ages 1 and 6. “We hope that the research gives us a better understanding about nitrates in our water supply so that our family can take proper steps to ensure it is healthy.”

UW-Eau Claire environmental public health student and faculty researchers are working with Eau Claire County homeowners, like the Wehlings, to determine how nitrates are getting into their private wells.

“We are helping to determine sources of nitrate contamination, like septic systems or agricultural runoff, of private wells,” says Dr. Laura Suppes, assistant professor of environmental public health.  “This research explores sources and risk factors of nitrate contamination in private wells in Eau Claire County.

“This is important to know so interventions can be developed and implemented to prevent well contamination by nitrate.”

With monies from a DNR grant, students are collecting well water samples for various agricultural and human waste indicators, like herbicides and caffeine, to explore how private wells in the area become contaminated with nitrate, says Suppes.

"ENPH student researchers are an invaluable resource to this project,” Suppes says. “Students are responsible for appointment scheduling, questionnaire administration, sample collection and processing, data entry and analysis.

“It is impressive to observe them performing graduate-level research using skills and knowledge from their ENPH coursework."

A chemist from the health department does the analysis of the samples students collect from the wells.

To date, 108 samples from private wells in Eau Claire County have been collected, says Dexter Zebro, a senior environmental public health major from Mosinee who is the student lead on the project.

Of the 108 samples, researchers tested 97 wells for seven agricultural indicators and three septic system indicators along with nitrate, he says.

Eighteen percent of sites have tested positive for four of the seven agricultural indicators, and 6 percent of the sites have tested positive for two of the three septic system indicators, Zebro says.

Since they raise animals and grow crops on their hobby farm, they hope to use information from the study to help them be good stewards of the land, Wehling says.

“We know we need to use conservative farming methods to take good care of the ground,” Wehling says. “The results from this research project should also help us better understand if there is a correlation between the farming practices, pasture lands, and other farming activities, and the level of nitrates in the water supply.”

The average nitrate concentration in the tested wells with agricultural indicators present is 10.7 milligrams per liter, which is significantly higher than the average nitrate concentration in wells without agricultural indicators present, Zebro says.

This finding suggests agriculture is a source of nitrate contamination in private wells in Eau Claire County, he says.  

“What I found most surprising is that 24 percent of samples had nitrate levels that were above the EPA's maximum contaminant level of 10.0 parts per million,” Zebro says.                                            

Nitrate above 10 mg/L in water can be harmful to human health when consumed, Suppes says, noting that private wells are not routinely tested or treated for nitrate.

While nitrate is a naturally occurring compound found in groundwater, human activities can increase the levels of nitrate in well water. It can be harmful to people, especially infants and children, if ingested at higher levels.

Nitrogen-containing fertilizers, manure and septic tank effluent are potential sources of nitrate contamination in Wisconsin.

For this study, researchers surveyed well sites to collect information on potential risk factors of nitrate contamination, like well depth, age of septic system, and distance from agricultural fields.

The research team will complete its two-year project this spring.

“This collaborative research between UWEC, the community and the WI DNR will help make our community and state a healthier place to live,” Suppes says.

Students will present their preliminary results at UW-Eau Claire's annual Celebration of Excellence in Research and Creative Activities symposium April 30-May 4.

While the homeowners will benefit from the study, the student researchers also gain skills and confidence, Suppes says.

“Our students gain invaluable experience, like sampling, data collection and working with the public, that will help them secure jobs as environmental health professionals after graduation and/or prepare them for graduate school,” Suppes says, noting that the Blugolds are working closely with Audrey Boerner and Ted Johnson from the health department.

In addition to Zebro, the UW-Eau Claire student researchers include Megan Ballweg, a senior environmental public health major from De Pere; Victoria Vouk, an environmental public health major from Oronoco, Minnesota; Jacob Kentnich, an environmental public health major from Glen Ellyn, Illinois; and Danielle Bredehoeft, an environmental public health major from Willmar, Minnesota.

These kinds of hands-on learning opportunities are among the reasons he is studying ENPH at UW-Eau Claire, says Zebro, who went to school in Madison before transferring to UW-Eau Claire.

“My brother was actually in the ENPH program and told me all about it,” says Zebro, whose sister also is a Blugold. “I have always had an interest in water quality and the DNR so it seemed like it could be a good fit. My brother sent me a UW-Eau Claire sweatshirt for my birthday and I called him and told him I was going to transfer.

“I immediately declared as an ENPH major, found an apartment with my brother, and it has been a great experience ever since. My first course for the major was the intro course with Dr. Suppes and I was immediately hooked.”

Having opportunities to be part of real-world projects that help people — like the Wehling family — is part of what make the ENPH program so impressive, Zebro says.

“As the project comes to an end, it is pretty incredible to see the results we created,” Zebro says. “It is a good feeling knowing that we have put something together that can be used as an informative tool to educate the public and to recreate policies to increase health within Eau Claire County.”

He credits UW-Eau Claire faculty for creating high-impact research experiences.

“The ENPH major is tremendous and it all starts with the professors who do everything they can to help prepare us to secure a job or transition into graduate school,” Zebro says. “This project has given me experience with sampling, data collection, and working with the public.”

Being in the field interacting with area professionals and property owners has given him knowledge and connections that would not be possible within a traditional classroom, he says.

“Networking is essential in transitioning into the role of an environmental health professional,” Zebro says. “I have had the opportunity to work with numerous employees from the Eau Claire City-County Health Department and the Department of Natural Resources. I also presented our research to the members of the Eau Claire County Groundwater Advisory Committee.

“Getting feedback and having contact with these resources is invaluable.”

The research experience is shaping how he sees his future, Zebro says.

“When I joined the ENPH major, I wanted to pursue a career in water quality,” says Zebro, who hopes to work for the DNR or the U.S. Public Health Service. “I decided to volunteer as a sampler for the project after taking our water and wastewater course. This eventually led to an internship with the Eau Claire City-County Health Department primarily focusing on this project.

“This project solidified my decision to pursue my passion for water quality, but also gave me a new outlook on the importance of public outreach and recreating policies.”

Wehling, who worked in community health while living in southern Wisconsin, is glad to see the university-community research partnerships.

“It is great to have students involved in the community,” Wehling says. “Their knowledge and fresh perspective adds so much to any project.”

Current Blugolds may not realize it but they may eventually benefit in ways they never image from their research and other community projects, Wehling says.

“Eau Claire seems to have a magnet effect on students,” Wehling says. “Even after graduation, students very well might find themselves back here in the community, working and raising a family — just like my story.

“Their involvement today can have lasting effects that might even impact them years down the road.”

Photo caption: Homeowner Katie Wehling is eager to work with Dexter Zebro, an environmental public health major, on a study to determine how nitrates get into private wells. More than 100 samples from private wells — including Wehling’s — in Eau Claire County have been collected.