Tensions mount over Kewaunee County groundwater
During a contentious meeting of the Kewaunee County Groundwater Task Force Wednesday, members broke into an argument during the public comments section after Sue Weisser, who lives in West Kewaunee, said that digging deeper wells will not address the groundwater contamination problem in the county.
Task force members were trying to help Don Poore, a town of Ahnapee resident, who said that his well had become contaminated with E.coli and were discussing the merits of digging a deeper well.
“Unfortunately, even some of our deep aquifers are now contaminated,” said Lee Luft, task force chairman. He told Poore that county well tests have demonstrated that digging a deeper well is no guarantee of safe water.
“This isn’t getting to the problem,” said Weisser. She said the problem was that farmers were spreading manure that polluted neighbor’s wells. A field adjacent to Poore’s land had recently come out of a conservation program, he said, and a farmer had begun spreading manure there.
“When people are spreading manure, and it gets into a well, that is a pollutant that they can be held liable for,” she said, referring to a recent Wisconsin Supreme Court decision that labeled cow manure as a pollutant.
The meeting was also attended by state Rep. Joel Kitchens, R-Sturgeon Bay.
“The problem is getting worse,” Luft told Kitchens and task force members. “I am getting a call once a week about someone with a polluted well.”
He said DNR websites that outlined what to do if a resident had a polluted well or saw violations of nutrient management plans were not effective.
Kitchens said that he is working on a bill to expand the well compensation fund so that the state could provide more financial assistance to people with contaminated wells.
“Most of the state has nitrate contamination, but here we have more coliform contamination,” Kitchens said . He said the bill would “open up” funding to address polluted wells.
Kitchens said one-third of the wells in Door County are also contaminated and that 20 percent of private wells across the state were contaminated.
Nick Cochart, task force member and Algoma School District superintendent, said that the Algoma School District has now set up a kiosk for county residents with contaminated wells to obtain clean water. A recent countywide study of 320 wells found that 110 were contaminated, and those well owners have been notified by the county and can contact him for access to this water, he said.
Praising Cochart for getting the Algoma School District to provide clean water to residents, town of Pierce resident Nancy Utesch said that “neither the state, county nor DNR have provided clean water to residents whose wells are polluted … The government agencies who were put in place to protect us have failed us.”
The DNR last summer formed three work groups with the goal of addressing the groundwater contamination problems in the county. The groups include farmers, manure haulers, environmentalists, crop experts as well as DNR, Environmental Protection Agency(EPA) and other government agency representatives. They are in the process of developing recommendations to the state Legislature, county government and other groups that are designed to alleviate the county’s ground and surface water contamination issues.
After months of meetings, some county officials and citizens groups are expressing concern that the groups were just formed to appease residents’ concerns and that most recommendations will not be implemented by the Legislature, DNR and county government.
“If these work group recommendations are not implemented, we will have a much bigger problem here,” Luft said. “This is a statewide issue, and it is going to take courage on the part of the Legislature.”
“Kewaunee County is taking the lead in trying to find solutions,” said County Board Chairman Ron Heuer. “We are working on this problem … and there is only so much that we can do.”
But Luft disagreed.
“Nothing that has been done to date has had an impact on the problem,” he said. “There have been lots of recommendations, but none have been implemented.”
John Pagel, chairman of the county’s Land and Water Conservation Committee, said, “I know the farmers, and 90 percent are committed to improving the groundwater contamination problem … We are working with a group of farmers on a volunteer basis to improve the situation.”
But several members pointed out that farmers had recently been documented spreading manure before a rainstorm, which created a high risk of contamination.
“volunteer measures failed in Iowa … and they are failing in this community,” said Lynn Utesch of Kewaunee Cares.
“I am getting tired of farmers saying that they are stewards of the land,” said Dick Swanson, task force member. “The farmers are not doing it (stewarding the land) for one reason only – money.”
In October 2014 a coalition of environmental groups urged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to use its emergency powers under the Safe Drinking Water Act to investigate the sources of contamination of Kewaunee County’s groundwater and enforce measures to correct the contamination and provide safe drinking water to residents.
“The EPA is here and there is hope for all of us that something will come from these DNR meetings,” Swanson said. He said that he and many residents and government officials have spent many days in four- or five-hour DNR work group meetings on a volunteer basis to develop recommendations for solutions to water problems.
Luft noted that in 2013, the DNR issued a nutrient balance sheet with the 2013 cow count of 76,000, which estimated the amount of nutrients from cow manure that were currently being spread on county agricultural fields. Some county officials and environmentalists said that the balance sheet indicated that the land was at capacity in terms of the amount of manure being spread.
The DNR then issued a revised nutrient balance sheet in November 2014 using the same 2013 cow count that demonstrated that the county’s fields could absorb up to twice the amount of manure being spread.
The state agency is now working on revising the sheet to reflect the 2015 county cow count of 98,000, Luft told the committee. He said that the DNR had indicated that it would issue a new balance sheet in November, but it still has not been made public.
The original balance sheet had been cited by some environmentalists as a major reason for government to put a moratorium on cow herd expansion until a solution to the groundwater contamination problem could be found.
“This could end poorly for Kewaunee County if the EPA comes here and forces them to do this – limit the cows,” Swanson said.
Luft also told the committee that the DNR Compliance and Enforcement Issues Workgroup had agreed unanimously on several recommendations, including: greater education/outreach for farmers, citizens, manure haulers, crop consultants and landowners who rent lands for agricultural activities; greater DNR review of Nutrient Management Plans to ensure all direct conduits to groundwater are mapped, confirming that all land that is utilized for land spreading is under contract and confirming that there are no “overlapping fields.”
The recommendations also call for more frequent DNR inspections of large- and medium-sized farms, inspections after rain and snow, and scheduled and unscheduled inspections. The group also agreed unanimously that the DNR warden vacancy should be filled.
Luft said that the county’s Land and Water Conservation Department had been told by the DNR’s Green Bay office that the county would be filling the vacant county DNR warden position soon.
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press Gazette: Tensions mount over Kewaunee County groundwater