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Mary Jane Koch stands near the site of her family’s former summer cottage on Lake Wisconsin. For decades, the Badger Army Ammunition Plant dumped its waste into the lake, an impoundment of the Wisconsin River. The Army has since removed tons of heavy metals from the lake and has proposed building a public water system to provide clean drinking water to area residents.

Costs, water pollution remain at closed Badger Army Ammunition Plant

Decades of toxic waste disposal at the Badger Army Ammunition Plant — including pouring millions of gallons a day of polluted water into Lake Wisconsin — have contaminated some nearby residents’ drinking water and raised concerns about the long-term effects on their health. But help may be on the way.

Nitrogen-based fertilizers applied to corn and other crops in Wisconsin is partially to blame for unsafe levels of nitrate found in wells around the state, researchers say.

What is nitrate?

Nitrate is a compound naturally found in plants and in vegetables and can be found in groundwater, depending on how much fertilizer and manure is applied to fields.

Sauk County farmer Jim Goodman, seen here at the farmers’ market in the village of Dane, said he believes Wisconsin’s nitrate problem has been exacerbated by “too many animals in too small a space” and the government’s failure to enforce pollution laws. Goodman is an organic farmer who uses nitrogen-fixing cover crops and manure rather than artificial fertilizers.

Going organic: One farmer’s fight against contaminants in the groundwater

In the early 1990s, Jim Goodman and his wife began to worry about how the chemicals they were using on the farm might affect their children. The fourth-generation Wisconsin farmer decided to make the shift away from conventional farming at his Sauk County operation. Now certified organic, the farm includes 120 head of cattle on pasture, including 45 milk cows, and 300 acres of crops.

Land use is a factor boosting the level of nitrate in the water in Wisconsin. In the Upper Midwest, millions of acres of grassland — which leaches little nitrogen into aquifers — have been converted into fields of corn, soy and other crops since 2008, according to University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers. Here, a farmer harvests corn near Blair in Trempealeau County.

Nitrate in water widespread, current rules no match for it

Levels of nitrate, one of the Wisconsin’s top drinking water contaminants, are increasing. Nitrate comes primarily from fertilizers, including manure, and puts infants and expectant mothers particularly at risk. A projected 94,000 households are drinking private well water with unsafe levels of nitrate. And many of them don’t even know it since few private well owners conduct regular testing.

Center’s Dee J. Hall receives Lee President’s Award for State Journal WEDC investigation

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism’s Dee J. Hall received an award for reporting from her former employer, Lee Enterprises, on Thursday. The Lee President’s Award, the company’s highest journalistic honor, recognized Hall and Wisconsin State Journal Reporter Matthew DeFour for their investigation into a failed taxpayer-funded loan to one of Gov. Scott Walker’s top donors. The award, which was shared with State Journal Assistant City Editor Mark Pitsch, recognizes the “outstanding achievement in any aspect of print and online journalism, from reporting and writing to photography, video, graphics and presentation” in the past year among Lee’s 50 daily newspapers. The investigation involved Building Committee Inc. of Milwaukee whose owner, William Minahan, had given Walker $10,000 on Election Day in 2010. The investigation by Hall and DeFour found one of Walker’s top aides, Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch, had pushed for a $4.3 million loan to the company, which was on the verge of collapse.

Mike Simonson Investigative Reporting Fellow named by Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Bridgit Bowden, a multimedia reporter at Kansas City Public Television, has been named the first recipient of an investigative reporting fellowship that memorializes the work of Wisconsin Public Radio reporter Mike Simonson, WPR and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism announced today. During the one-year fellowship, Bowden will work collaboratively with WPR and WCIJ to deepen her skills in investigative journalism, editing and on-air radio production. “I am so honored to be chosen as the Mike Simonson Fellow. During this fellowship I hope to share my passion for radio storytelling and hone my reporting and production skills. I’m very excited for the mentoring I’ll receive from WPR and WCIJ,” Bowden said.

Frank Michna buys bottled water for drinking and cooking in his Caledonia home because of high levels of molybdenum and boron in his well.

Safe, clean drinking water eludes many Wisconsinites

Hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin’s 5.8 million residents are at risk of consuming drinking water tainted with substances including lead, nitrate, disease-causing bacteria and viruses, naturally occurring heavy metals and other contaminants, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism has found.