Artesian wells are often viewed as the best source for clean and great-tasting water. The clear, ever-flowing water holds a certain mystique that draws people to them in search of the healthiest drinking water.
Do these wells live up to their billing? Experts understand the attractiveness of artesian wells, but make a strong note of caution: drink at your own risk.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, artesian wells flow under natural pressure without pumping. These wells are dug or drilled wherever a gently dipping, permeable rock layer (such as sandstone) receives water along its outcrop at a level higher than the level of the surface of the ground at the well site. At the outcrop the water moves down into the aquifer (water-bearing layer) but is prevented from leaving it, by impermeable rock layers, such as shale, above and below it. Pressure from the water’s weight (hydrostatic pressure) forces water to the surface of a well drilled down into the aquifer; the pressure for the steady upflow is maintained by the continuing penetration of water into the aquifer at the intake area.
In places where the overlying impermeable rocks are broken by joints or faults, water may escape through them to rise to the surface as artesian springs. The rapid development of new wells has tended to reduce head pressures in many artesian systems. As a result, most artesian wells are now outfitted with pumps.
"There are many artesian wells throughout Wisconsin," said Kevin Masarik, Groundwater Education Specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. "The public has access to many of these locations."
"While they do hold some mystique—and a lot of people associate artesian wells with pure and good tasting water—it’s unfair to say that this is always the case," continued Masarik. "The quality of artesian wells is as variable as groundwater and private well water quality. It is just dependent on where the water for that confined aquifer originates.
"If you look at water quality results from different suppliers of bottled artesian water you’ll see that on a chemical level it’s comparable to all the other bottled water out there," said Masarik. "The Wisconsin Department of Ag, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) is required to sample different bottled water vendors. They put out reports summarizing results that you might find interesting. I’ve always found it interesting that there are specific requirements for labeling bottled water that is related to the source. While all bottle water is required to meet safe drinking water standards, the labeling requirements by the FDA have nothing to do with water quality."
Masarik said residents can learn more about bottled water labeling at http://datcp.wi.gov/Food/Food_Safety_for_Consumers/Bottled_Water/index.aspx .
Steve Thompson, General Manager of New London Utilities, said one artesian well can be found inside city limits.
"There is one artesian well in the City of New London," said Steve Thompson, General Manager of New London Utilities. "That well is the city’s Well #3 on Douglas Street. If we stopped pumping that well, it would eventually flow as an artesian well, although it would take several months for that to happen."
Thompson said there are a number of artesian wells near New London—especially in Northport.
"There are many artesian wells in Northport, and there is one on Hwy. X and another to the south on Hwy. W, but they are not regulated or tested by the city," stated Thompson.
According to the website www.findaspring.com, there is another artesian well near N1588 Hwy. HH, which is said to have a lower pH and produce better tasting water than the one on Hwy. X.
"I don’t want to say there is anything wrong with people filling up jugs of water from artesian wells. Certainly, for many people with private wells that produce poor quality water, filling up at these wells may provide a cost effective and good tasting source of water," stated Masarik. "The only thing I would caution is that people should only use artesian wells where the water quality is known. To my knowledge, many of these wells are not tested on a regular or frequent basis. The most important of the tests would be a coli form and E. coli bacteria test to ensure that the artesian well is producing bacteriologically free water. Artesian water is simply groundwater that comes from a confined aquifer, and many people’s private wells are going to produce water that is similar or better quality—it just depends on where the well is and the surrounding land use."
Ken Bradbury, a Hydro-Geologist with the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, says many people share a common misconception about artesian well water quality.
"Artesian well water is just groundwater," said Bradbury. "Although it’s likely to be good quality, there’s no guarantee unless someone has been testing it. It’s a common misconception that there’s something special about the water, but there really are no guarantees.
Masarik and Bradbury both stated that to their knowledge there is no statewide map of artesian well locations.
"We can predict areas that are likely to have artesian wells—usually they’re found in river valleys or low places in the landscape," said Bradbury. "Artesian wells are sometimes noted on topographic maps, if they have been around a long time; however, some old artesian wells listed on topographic maps may not still be flowing today.
"You would certainly expect to find artesian wells along the Wolf River," Bradbury explained. "Any large rivers, like the Wolf or the Wisconsin Rivers, are discharge points. This means that these are places where groundwater is naturally flowing to the surface.
"The water from these wells is likely to be just fine, but people need to be aware that risk is involved any time you drink from an untested water source," said Bradbury. "The most common test is a bacteria coli form test. This is a test that a number of labs can routinely complete. It’s the same test that you’re required to have when you drill a new well at your home. It costs about $20.
"If you’re drinking this water regularly, you need to have it tested for metals and nitrates—you don’t want to be drinking that stuff," continued Bradbury. "Sometimes the water can smell odd, like rotten eggs. This means there are probably lots of sulfides in it. It’s not necessarily bad for you, but it could certainly upset your digestive system.
"At a minimum, you should have the water tested for bacteria and nitrates if you plan to drink it regularly," said Bradbury. "You can have it tested on your own at a fairly inexpensive price. You could also take it home and filter it yourself with an at-home water pitcher that is equipped with its own filter."
Great water is readily available through many sources locally. A couple relatively inexpensive tests and other precautionary measures may be all you need to mix fact with mystique and connect yourself with truly exceptional artesian well water.
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