During a recent meeting of the Rhinelander Planning Commission, city administrator Daniel Guild addressed the city's need to update its wellhead protection policy to prevent contaminates from getting into the city's drinking water supply. The discussion on the need to update the wellhead protection plan (WHPP) took place Aug. 6 when Guild continued a presentation he began last month on chapters 4 and 10 of the city's comprehensive plan.
It also marked the most detailed discussion to date related to the PFAS contamination detected in municipal well 7 earlier this summer.
The well, located near the Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport, was placed offline June 24 after elevated levels of chemicals knowns as PFAS were detected in the drinking water, the city announced in a Facebook post Monday evening, July 22.
PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals that have been used in non-stick cookware, water-repellent clothing, stain resistant fabrics and carpets, some cosmetics and products that resist grease, water and oil.
Exposure to PFAS has been linked to higher cholesterol, lower female fertility, lower infant birthweights, and other health risks, according to public health experts.
The wellhead discussion started with Guild reminding the commission why it's important to update the comprehensive plan.
"A comprehensive plan is required by the Wisconsin state statutes, and has to be adjusted or updated every 10 years, at a minimum," Guild said. "And a comprehensive plan is supposed to guide the growth and development of the community over a 20-year horizon."
Guild told the commission that a WHPP is also part of the comprehensive plan.
"Wellhead protection plans are required per the Safe Water Drinking Act, DNR regulations, things like that," Guild said. "It's all about what kind of business activities, what kind of industrial, what kind of manufacturing do we allow near the wells that we have drilled that provides the city's drinking water. Now we know that recently there have been discussions about the quality of the city's drinking water. What's very interesting to me, as a local government professional, is that I look at this document. and I've read it, there is certain deficiencies in the document that I think could be improved upon."
While the city's current wellhead protection plan does meet "the minimum standards of what is required," Guild said it is his understanding that it has never been formally adopted as part of the city's comprehensive plan.
"And I'll tell you why this is important," Guild said. "A city's authority to zone comes from the comprehensive plan. All city zoning needs to be consistent with the comprehensive plan. So if we create a document that says, hey, we're going to restrict people's ability to develop their properties - because in this country you have property rights - we're going to restrict the kind of businesses and activities that happen on people's properties in a certain vicinity of where the city has drilled public wells because we want to minimize the risk of contamination of the aquifer and risk contamination of the city's public drinking water supply."
Those zones are identified in the wellhead protection plan, but they have not been incorporated into the comprehensive plan, Guild explained.
If the wellhead protection plan were part of the comprehensive plan, Guild said city inspector Terry Williams would be able to deny permits to anyone seeking to locate a business in any of the zones that might use chemicals that could contaminate the water coming from that well if it were to leak. But since the WHPP isn't formally part of the comprehensive plan, a perspective manufacturer could challenge such a denial in court.
Commission member Sandy Bergman stated that she had never heard of the WHPP before and almost everyone else around the table concurred.
Alderman George Kirby said former public works director Tim Kingman had brought it up once at a water/wastewater committee meeting.
"In 2015, council passed a new wellhead protection program," mayor Chris Frederickson said. "It came out of wastewater. But it never came through planning."
"There is a lot of different pieces of local government, where this piece has to get connected to that piece," Guild said. "And to suggest that Rhinelander is the only local government in Wisconsin that hasn't properly connected A to B to C would be unfair. But my job is not to be negative, it's to inform and educate."
According to Guild, one chapter that must be included in all comprehensive plans pertains to natural and cultural resource preservation. Water quality would fall under this chapter.
"So this (WHPP) should be adopted as a subset of the comprehensive plan in that chapter," Guild said. "Now, what I'd like to propose is sending this document out to everybody. It's not as big as some of these other ones ... this is barely even 40 pages, so it's not that complex."
He suggested the commission members read the document in preparation for a discussion at the next meeting. They could then work toward having the council go through the process of amending the comprehensive plan to include it.
Guild said any inefficiencies in the process could be addressed at a later date. This would give the city the authority to enforce the WHPP as part of the zoning code.
"It depends on how the lawyers want to argue it. I think one lawyer could say WHPPs are required by the state," Guild said. "Every community that has a public drinking water supply has them. It was passed legitimately by the council during an open, public meeting, it's the policy of the city. So I think there's a strong argument to be made about that. At the same time, things have to be properly adopted to be a part of the zoning plan to give them the legitimacy that would result."
Guild said his recommendation would be that the council formally add the WHPP to the comprehensive plan. Best practice would be for it to come through the planning commission, he added.
To accomplish this, Guild said the commission and the council would have to hold public hearings and the proposed resolution would have to be published.
Guild said the city has had a WHPP for many years, and the last time it was modified was June 2015. That version was produced by the Wisconsin Rural Water Association in cooperation with Kingman and members of the water/wastewater committee. he explained.
Frederickson said a search of recent records turned up three different versions of the WHPP. Any other versions would be in boxes in the basement of City Hall, it was noted.
Frederickson said it appeared that the plan was updated whenever the city would add a new well. In addition to the 2015 version, the plan was updated in 2008 when well 7 was drilled near the southwest end of the Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport property.
"This plan itself does not prevent a municipality from putting a well in a bad spot," Guild replied to a commissioner's question. "But what you would do is that you would create a zoning district for institutional use. Whenever the city builds something, the city has to apply for a building permit, the city has to apply for an application that has to go before the planning commission like any other customer. We're not exempt from state rules because we have to alert the public just like every other business does when we're developing."
If the city wanted to drill a new well, it would create a zoning district.
"We would say that, based on its zoning, the wellhead protection plan does not allow for this kind of use," Guild said. "Because once the aquifer is punched, once there is that crack that opened it, that increases the likelihood for infiltration of contaminates."
It was pointed out that before wells 7 and 8 were drilled, PFAS had already been detected and testing should have been done before the wells were drilled.
Guild said that he has not been able to find any information on how the water flows underground in the area under well 7.
"So it is very possible that there is/was a source contaminate somewhere else," he said. "It got into the aquifer, the aquifer flows and moves underground just as it does above the ground, and the contaminate moved from the site where it went into to the site where well 7 is at."
If you compare the test results for wells 7 and 8, although they are in fairly close proximity to each other, the readings are different, he added.
"So either the contaminate is very localized to well 7, which means there's a source that is in fairly close proximity to that particular punch in the aquifer, or there is movement in the aquifer and it just hasn't gotten all the way over to where 8 is," Guild explained.
If the city were to start looking for more well sites, he would recommend that it undertake a comprehensive hydrology study because of the "significant manufacturing presence in the community," he added.
"And given the fact that you have a landfill that has had a reputation for some shenanigans in the past," Guild said. "It could only serve the community to know how that hydrology is flowing and moving when looking for potential sites."
This would be part of a utility master plan that would also be added to the comprehensive plan, he added.
Bergman told Guild that in the not too distant past, the city could call on the expertise of water superintendent Roger Flynn, who had extensive knowledge and training in water issues.
"He went to the conventions and he brought back stuff," Bergman said. "Will there be another Rodger that we can depend on in the water department or will we have to keep hiring a consultant?"
"From my own personal philosophy or my own perspective, local governments with the towering amount of bureaucracy and legislation that we're under with both the feds and the state, it's just becoming too complex to have a subject matter expert in every area that a city needs to work and divide to provide services to the public," Guild replied. "And what I really see in the future, you'll have a lot of generalists. Because you can't buy all of the specialists, you can't afford them all."
Guild also noted that he didn't think the taxpayers would tolerate paying the market rate for such specialists.
Frederickson said the best approach would be to encourage present city employees to get additional training and the experience to back it up to make them good assets in their field. But getting such a person to get that kind of training without upsetting the present work environment could present problems.
Among the problems facing the city are determining the source of the PFAS, devising a way to contain it, and remediating the source site, he added.
The city is waiting for the results from new water samples sent to Northern Lakes Service, Inc. in Crandon, the same lab that detected PFAS contamination in the well 7.
The town of Crescent is splitting the $375 cost of testing the water coming from Crescent Spring near the Wisconsin River on South River Road.
The Crandon lab is also conducting those tests.
Jamie Taylor may be reached via email at jamie@rivernews online.com.
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