Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism receives Conservation in Action Award for investigation of risks to state’s drinking water

Courtesy of Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters

The Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters presented an award to the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism on Oct. 17 for its ongoing, award-winning Failure at the Faucet series. From left are Kerry Schumann, executive director of the league; Tory Vollrath, league president; Dee J. Hall, the Center's managing editor; and other award winners Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech University; and Chris Ford, a member of the league's board of directors.

The Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters has presented the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism with its 2017 Conservation in Action Award for Failure at the Faucet, an ongoing investigation of risks to the state’s drinking water.

“The series has served a critical role in uncovering the seriousness and scale of Wisconsin’s drinking water problems,” the nonpartisan conservation league said. “This award represents the conservation community’s gratitude for the excellent work the Center performs each day, and for shining a light on the issue through its world-class reporting.”

Courtesy of Kewaunee County Land and Water Conservation Department

These jars contain brown water taken from a tap in Kewaunee County that researchers tied to the recent spreading of manure on a nearby field. The soil from the field and water from the home shared the same signatures for fecal contaminants.

The series found that 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 problem persists, and in some areas is worsening, because of flawed agricultural practices, development patterns that damage water quality, geologic deposits of harmful chemicals, porous karst and sand landscapes, lack of regulation of the private wells serving an estimated 1.7 million people, and breakdowns in state and federal systems intended to safeguard water quality, the Center found.

Reporting for the series began in 2015 as part of The Confluence, an experimental news project of the Center and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. It is an example of the UW’s Wisconsin Idea — the benefits of the university extending to the borders of the state — in action.

Initial support for The Confluence was provided by a 2014 Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education grant managed by the Online News Association and funded by the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the Knight Foundation, the Democracy Fund and the Rita Allen Foundation.

Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Evanny Dorsey spoke at a meeting about lead in drinking water at the House of Prayer in Milwaukee on Dec. 6, 2016. She says her daughter, Avanny, age 3, has tested positive for elevated levels of lead three times in the past year. Because Avanny's blood lead levels were just below the limit that would trigger an inspection, no one has been to Dorsey's house to look for the source of lead. Dorsey suspects it's leaching into the water from her home's lead service lines. "It's our future," she said. "It's our children that it's affecting."

Other award recipients at the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters’ Oct. 17 Green Tie Gala in Milwaukee were Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech University professor who exposed the Flint, Michigan lead-in-water crisis; and Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters board member Chris Ford of West Bend.

The League is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization “dedicated to electing conservation leaders, holding decision makers accountable, and encouraging lawmakers to champion conservation policies that effectively protect Wisconsin’s public health and natural resources.”

Failure at the Faucet also has won several journalism awards including a first-place national Sigma Delta Chi award for investigative reporting for small independent news sites from the Society of Professional Journalists.

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