Where’s the Clean Water? activists ask
Where is the clean water?
That is the question asked of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources by environmental groups this week.
They charged that not one resident with a contaminated well in Kewaunee County has been provided with a drop of clean water by a government agency in spite of dozens of meetings held by DNR, EPA and other government officials over the last six months to address the well problem.
“There are still hundreds of residents of the county who have been stripped of their dignity to be able to use their own faucet,” says Jodi Parins, a Kewaunee County citizen participating in two of three work groups established by the DNR in September to address groundwater contamination in the county.
“To me, this is a reflection of a very failed system that is not responding to human need,” Parins said.
Several environmental groups sent a letter to the EPA this week calling for federal support to provide clean drinking water to households in Kewaunee County, where an estimated 34 percent of wells are contaminated by E.coli, nitrates or other pollutants.
It has been more than 16 months since Midwest Environmental Advocates filed a petition on behalf of environmental groups with the EPA asking for the agency to use its emergency powers to address groundwater contamination in Kewaunee County.
This week’s letter to the EPA raises an alarm that residents are not getting the immediate relief they need from their government, according to Sara Geers, staff attorney for Midwest Environmental Advocates.
The EPA and DNR need to find resources immediately to provide clean water either through water stations set up in municipalities or delivery to resident’s homes, she said.
DNR Spokesperson George Althoff, said DNR leadership is scheduled to meet with key EPA staff to discuss the county’s water quality issues Wednesday.
“DNR is actively working on formulating short-term and long-term plans to address water quality issues in Kewaunee County,” said Althoff. “This has been and is a priority for the agency.”
The Algoma School Board announced in January that it would provide a kiosk for county residents to obtain clean water until government agencies could come up with a more permanent solution to the groundwater contamination problem.
In its first two months, approximately 40 households used the kiosk to obtain clean water, said Nick Cochart, superintendent of the Algoma School District.
But this week, Cochart announced that the kiosk had been vandalized three times and he was uncertain whether the school district could continue to keep it operational. It has been the only source of free water in the county for residents with contaminated wells.
Three DNR work groups were established to address groundwater contamination issues in the fall. They were comprised of farmers, citizens, environmental organization reps, agricultural specialists, manure haulers and government officials.
Two of the groups – Short-Term Solutions and Compliance – met for six months and have completed their recommendations. The next step is for the DNR to send some of these recommendations to the appropriate government body, such as the state legislature, where they could be adopted into law.
But several work group members say that it is unlikely that the current state and county governments, which have strongly supported the growth of large agriculture, will act on the recommendations or make them law.
“It is like the Wild West in Kewaunee County,” said one Door County resident. “The CAFOs know they are polluting but they are trying to grow as fast as possible before the regulators come in so they will be grandfathered in.”
Environmentalists continue to contend that the major cause of the increased groundwater and surface water contamination in Kewaunee County has been the growth of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).
In spite of growing groundwater and surface water pollution, the DNR has approved new and existing CAFO permits in the county even when a CAFO has been recently fined for manure waste violations. There are currently 16 CAFOs in Kewaunee County and the number of cows has continued to increase annually.
Door County officials also participated in the work groups because the county has some of the shallow soils that make groundwater more vulnerable to contamination, said Bill Schuster with the Door County Soil and Water Conservation Department.
Door County currently has two DNR wardens and only 1 CAFO, according to Schuster. Kewaunee County has not had a DNR warden for several years.
The DNR is charged with enforcing regulations related to CAFO manure spreading and storage, while the Kewaunee County Land and Water Conservation Department oversees manure regulations for smaller agricultural operations.
The third DNR workgroup – the Sensitive Areas and Best Management Practices Group – has evaluated the county’s and state’s current compliance structure for farmers and asked for voluntary cooperation.
“The report from that group will be recommendations for voluntary acceptance by the farmers and livestock facility operators,” said Davina Boness, Kewaunee County conservationist who serves on that committee. “My hope is that everyone adopts some or all the recommendations so that together we can achieve improved water quality.”
The chair of the county’s Land and Water Committee, John Pagel, is the owner of one of the largest CAFOs in the county and has not proposed any new regulations. However, county residents did approve, by more than an 80 percent vote in 2015, a groundwater protection ordinance, which limits manure spreading during winter months when groundwater is most vulnerable to contamination
So far, four violations to the ordinance have been reported, Bonness said.
Environmental groups say that voluntary recommendations will not be enough to address the groundwater contamination.
“After years of talks, Kewaunee County residents are still waiting for local solutions to this continued drinking water crisis,” said Lynn Utesch, a Kewaunee County farmer and one of the EPA petitioners.
Karen Ebert Yancey can be reached at [email protected], on Facebook at Kewaunee County Star News Facebook, on Twitter at @EbertYancey or by calling 920-559-1235.
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press Gazette: Where's the Clean Water? activists ask