Our Views: Rock County is rich in water, but we must not take it for granted

Comments Comments Print Print
Monday, March 24, 2014

Gazette Editor Scott Angus and his wife are pouring water down the drain. They’ve been doing so since a lateral pipe to their Janesville home froze in late January. After crews thawed it, the city utility advised them to run a faucet until spring.

The underground pipe refroze 10 days later, and after workers again heated it, the utility recommended running two faucets until frost is out of the ground.

While spring struggles to get its footing, the Anguses are far from alone. As reporter Anna Marie Lux detailed in Sunday’s Gazette, 470 city residents are running water to keep pipes from freezing.

That’s stunning. Water is a precious resource, something to conserve rather than run down the drain. Fortunately, however, Rock County is rich in this natural resource. Arizona, California and other western states are exploring how to quench pressing demands. Even Waukesha County—50 miles away—is desperate for this “liquid treasure” to slake its thirst.

Kenneth Bradbury, a hydrogeologist with the Wisconsin Geological & Natural History Survey, part of the UW Extension, calls Rock County’s water supply fantastic. Credit porous sand and gravel dumped along what became the Rock River Valley after the last glacier receded.

While water has been going down the drain here for months, use plummeted when General Motors closed. Janesville’s auto factory guzzled much water. The city used 4.9 billion gallons in 2003 but only 3.6 billion last year.

That doesn’t mean we should take water for granted, Bradbury cautions. Rock County’s thirst rose from about 27.2 million gallons per day in 1979 to 45.4 million in 2005. This county has more than 200 high-capacity wells, each draining 100,000 or more gallons per day. Many have been dug in recent years, particularly to irrigate crops.

Some central Wisconsin counties with even more high-capacity wells are detecting declines in streams and wetlands. It’s a myth that groundwater runs in a massive underground river. Instead, surface water replenishes it. It also doesn’t travel far. Pollutants introduced in Rock County are likely to stay and taint our groundwater. Because contaminants affect shallow wells first, pollutants can force homeowners and municipalities to dig deeper, more expensive wells to tap clean water.

As Bradbury stresses, groundwater is out of sight but should never be out of mind.

“People in Rock County need to be proud,” he told Lux. “They are living in a place with a great water resource. But they need to be stewards of it. They need to think about where it comes from and where it goes.”

Plentiful water is one more reason Rock County is a great place to live, work and raise families. Nevertheless, it’s wise to conserve water and reduce pollutants. Utility rebates for low-use toilets, faucets and showerheads make sense. Planners should factor water use before approving new industries and neighborhoods.

David Botts, Janesville’s water utility director, perhaps said it best: “We see no issues with availability in the future. But that doesn’t give us license to use more than we need.”

Comments Comments Print Print