By LeAnn R. Ralph
BLOOMER — A five-year groundwater study commissioned by Chippewa County includes a study area that extends to the east side of Colfax and includes the Red Cedar River.
The $400,000 study will determine the effects of non-metallic mining and agricultural irrigation wells on the water supply, wells and streams, rivers and lakes in the area, said Dan Masterpole, Chippewa County conservationist, during an informational meeting February 26 at Bloomer Middle School.
Even though Colfax is just outside of the study area, water for the village’s wells could come from aquifers located within the study area that extends east of Bloomer, north of New Auburn and west to Colfax.
A total of nine industrial sand mines covering more than 2,400 acres have received reclamation permits from Chippewa County are already operating east and north of Colfax in the groundwater study area.
An additional three permit applications are pending with Chippewa County for industrial sand mines covering another 850 acres.
The groundwater study area includes five high-capacity wells for the sand mines along with a number of high-capacity irrigation wells for cropland.
A stakeholders group was formed to provide technical feedback for the groundwater study and includes local citizens, Trout Unlimited, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the Wisconsin Farmers Union, and all industrial sand mining companies in the study area: Chippewa Sand Company, EOG Resources, Preferred Sands, Superior Silica Sands, Taylor Creek Transit, and West Wisconsin Sand Company.
Mark Dietsche, chair of the Town of Grant, is among the stakeholders. One of the groundwater study monitoring wells is located on Dietsche’s farm in the Town of Grant north of Colfax.
Four scientists from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey are conducting the study.
“We wanted to contract with independent agencies that have no interest in the (mining or irrigation) permits and can focus on the science,” Masterpole said.
Sand mines and irrigation wells can most definitely affect streams, rivers and lakes, because in this area, the groundwater discharges to surface water, said Madeline Gotkowitz, a hydrogeologist at the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey and a UW-Extension professor.
Groundwater, which flows to streams, rivers and lakes because they are lower in elevation than the groundwater, is typically high-quality water, she noted.
Because of the drought in recent years, and because stormwater run-off contains phosphorus and nitrates that contribute to problems with algae blooms in area lakes, it is important to preserve the baseflow because it keeps the streams clearer, Gotkowitz said.
Changes in the landscape because of the sand mines, and the water pumped from high-capacity wells for washing the sand and for agricultural irrigation, could have an impact on groundwater levels in the study area, she said.
The groundwater study will evaluate current and future water use, recharge rates for the groundwater, and will include a groundwater flow model.
Water use and the landscape will be evaluated prior to the start of frac sand mining in Chippewa County as well as afterwards and will include two scenarios — peak sand mining until the year 2030 and post-mine reclamation.
The scientists emphasized that the scenarios will be illustrative of general groundwater trends but not predictive and also emphasized that the groundwater study will consider quantity of water but not the quality of the water.
The scientists noted, too, that the study area is in a “headwaters” area for many larger bodies of water and that headwaters tend to be sensitive to any changes in the environment.
The study began in the fall of 2012, and public informational meetings are expected to be held each year to disseminate information gathered by the study, Masterpole said.
“It is important for people to stay engaged. The study is being done because of the public’s concerns (about groundwater) and because of the many questions (received by the Chippewa County land conservation office),” he said.
Chippewa County contributed nearly $76,000 to the study in 2012, and is budgeted to pay $71,500 this year; $67,000 in 2014; $68,000 in 2015; and $62,000 in 2017.
USGS also will be contributing about $80,000 to the study.
As reports become available, the information will be posted to the Chippewa County land conservation and forest management website, Masterpole said.
In addition to Gotkowitz, the study teams includes Michael Fienen (a research hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey Wisconsin Water Science Center in Middleton); Paul Juckem (also a hydrologist with the Water Science Center in Middleton); and Michael Parsen (a hydrologist with the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey in Madison).
For more information about the groundwater study, visit the Chippewa County website at www.co.chippewa.wi.us and click on the link for county departments.