JANESVILLE — Rock County health officials trained this spring for the worst case: a water test showing fecal bacteria in Janesville water.

Then they had the real thing.

A positive test affecting the city’s commercial corridor is something Rick Wietersen had hoped never to face.

Wietersen, the Rock County Health Department’s groundwater program manager, said that as a training exercise the department created a “worst case scenario” centered on Milton Avenue. Employees practiced writing press releases advising people to boil water. They pretended to make plans for follow-up tests, and they gathered lists of business phone numbers.

Then on May 8, the city water utility received a real positive test indicating bacteria had entered the water system.

“We didn’t expect that worse case we created to be our first case,” Wietersen said. “You just couldn’t have picked a worse part of the city to have that happen.”

Coliform bacteria aren’t inherently dangerous, but its presence indicates that harmful bacteria could have survived the chemicals municipal water supplies are treated with.

Janesville water utility and Rock County Health officials now agree the positive sample was a glitch or a human error and not a real problem with the system. None of the follow-up tests were positive for any type of bacteria and no sickness was reported in the affected area.

But the importance of clean water seemed to hit city residents.

Water utility employees fielded 1,900 calls, mainly from people confused about whether their home or business fell in the area with a boil order. Utility director Dan Lynch said he felt a great deal of support from the community and doesn’t regret issuing the boil order sooner than state regulations require.

“All we knew when the order was put out was that we had one positive,” Lynch said. “But in the interest of 10,000 people, we acted to keep them safe or at least informed.”

May’s incident might have been the first time residents had questions about the water they drink: Is it safe? How do we test it? What do we do if something goes wrong?

Testing standards

The city’s water utility, county health department and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources work cooperatively to test the water drawn from two underground aquifers.

Wisconsin water systems are required to test for dozens of contaminants and substances and be in compliance with national standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

One of the primary red flags is a coliform bacterium. Usually carried in fecal matter, coliform are not inherently dangerous. But their presence indicates other harmful bacteria could have survived sanitary measures, said Tom Stunkard, public water supply engineer for the DNR.

Stunkard has overseen utilities in Dane, Green and Rock County for 23 years.

Based on population, Janesville’s water utility must test for coliform at least 70 times each month at 70 locations in the system, Stunkard said. By comparison, Madison must test 150 times and Lake Geneva must test eight times.

The water utility tests 72 times each month just to be on the safe side.

Although some communities have trouble with high substance levels—high arsenic levels in areas of Walworth County as the water table is drawn down, manganese that can cause nerve damage in Madison and acidic water in northern Wisconsin—Rock County is lucky, Wietersen said.

Rock County’s concerns

The only constant concern in Rock County is a high level of nitrates in the shallower aquifer caused by agricultural fertilizers and livestock waste, Stunkard said. Septic systems also can contribute.

High levels of nitrates cause what’s commonly known as “blue baby” syndrome. The nitrates are reduced to nitrites by the body and combine with hemoglobin in the blood. That reduces the body’s ability to carry blood efficiently and causes the blue tinge to the skin, Wietersen said.

The national standard for nitrate is 10 parts per million. Pregnant women and infants are advised not to use water above that level.

The DNR requires only annual tests for nitrates, but the Janesville water utility tests each quarter. The extra tests for nitrates, benzene and other substances help the utility draw a baseline and help employees spot trends, Lynch said.

Three municipal wells have higher nitrate levels, but only one exceeds the compliance standard.

Instead of installing expensive treatment systems, Janesville blends water from shallow wells with water from deep wells.

Stunkard said the “blending” practice is used in many other groundwater systems and is a reliable solution.

“Janesville has been a very proactive, aggressive city in dealing with that problem,” he said.

Since Janesville’s nitrate problems come from wells drawing water from the shallower wells of the Rock River Valley, the water utility developed “blending stations.” Before water from a shallow well is sent into the distribution system, it is mixed with water from a partner well that draws from a deeper sandstone aquifer unaffected by nitrates.

The blending stations produce water with an acceptable nitrate level to be pumped into the distribution system.

Though the city had to drill deep wells to pair with shallower wells, blending is a good solution, Janesville Director of Utilities Dan Lynch said.

“Treating for nitrates is always an option, but that doesn’t increase system capacity like another well does,” he said.

Chlorine and fluoride also are added at the blending phase to eliminate contaminants, particularly bacteria. Some people can smell the chlorine in city water, but Stunkard said the chemical is a valuable tool to fight contaminants.

“If you have the appropriate levels, then your chance of getting viruses or bacteria in your water is almost zero,” he said.

Monitoring chlorine levels also is a good back-up check for bacteria, said Katie Karow, Janesville’s water utility superintendent.

Because chlorine eliminates bacteria, testing the chemical’s level in the water can be a sign of whether a positive test is reliable, Karow said. If chlorine levels are high but a tests shows the presence of bacteria, the test is probably faulty. High chlorine levels were the first indication that something wasn’t right about the positive coliform result in May, she said.

Even if water looks or tastes fine, chlorine ensures safety.

“I can show you a lot of bacteria you can’t see,” Stunkard said.

Testing of wells encouraged

Well owners usually claim their water is better than anything a municipality can provide.

That might be true, a Rock County Health Department official said, but private owners should follow city standards for testing and safety.

Private owners are not required to test their wells on a schedule, but Groundwater Program Manager Rick Wietersen recommends an annual test for bacteria and nitrates.

The health department inspects restaurants and other public facilities that use well water.

The department performs the private tests for a $22 fee, a small price to avoid sickness, Wietersen said.

Like the city’s water supply, private wells in Rock County are susceptible to high nitrate levels that can cause oxygen deficiency for infants and pregnant women, commonly known as “blue baby” syndrome. Bacteria can also cause flu-like symptoms including nausea and vomiting, he said.

Private wells don’t have access to the chemicals and other measures that municipal systems use to cleanse water and can often be contaminated by insects including earwigs. Nearly 20 percent of the wells tested by the health department in 2007 were positive for unsafe bacteria, according to Wietersen.

He said the results might be skewed because well owners usually don’t test their water unless they suspect a problem because of taste or discoloration. But clear water doesn’t mean safe water, he said.

If a well is found to have high nitrates or unsafe bacteria, owners can install reverse osmosis systems to treat the existing water or dig a new well. The health department assists owners in finding the best option after a positive test.

More tests at private wells also can help the department see developing trends, especially for high nitrate levels, Wietersen said.

“From a health department perspective, we want to educate people about the importance of testing for the good of the entire community,” he said.

Bottled vs. tap: Could you taste the difference?

Every city has a “water reputation,” and Janesville is no exception. But based on an admittedly small sample taken by the Gazette, city residents don’t seem to prefer the taste of municipal water to bottled.

Of 20 people who sampled tap water and bottled water at Janesville’s Hedberg Public Library, more than half correctly identified Janesville water in a blind taste test.

Most said it has more of a “mineral” taste. A slightly higher temperature compared to the bottled water also encouraged some testers to pick out the municipal water.

When asked which cup they preferred, a slight majority said they preferred the bottled water (though they didn’t know for sure it wasn’t tap at that point).

Lisa Rebman of Edgerton was one tester who disagreed with that point.

“It’s just bland,” she said after sipping the bottled water. “This other one (the tap water) has a more distinct taste.”

Water testing results available online

Curious about your city’s water quality tests? The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources posts the results on its Web site each month. Follow these instructions from DNR Public Supply Engineer Tom Stunkard to find all the information you need.

1. Visit http://www.dnr.state.wi.us/org/water/dwg/DWS.htm

2. Click on the heading “Public Systems”

3. Type your city or town, i.e. Janesville into the “name” bar and click on the “find” button on the lower left-hand side of the screen.

4. Click on the name of the utility, i.e. “Janesville Water Utility.”

A list of headings will come up.

To get information on nitrates, copper or lead levels under the heading “Other (non-bacteriological) samples.” This heading will show all the sample results collected by the city. You can use the “next” and “back” buttons to view more results.

Bacteria samples are under the topic “Bacteriological Samples” and will provide a page that looks like the organic results.

If you have questions about the results or your water service in Janesville, contact the city’s Water Utility at (608) 755-3115 or the DNR at (888) 936-7463.