While two Democratic Wisconsin legislators announced plans to introduce a bill they say will improve drinking water quality, the state’s dairy farmers are already taking proactive steps to keep the Badger State’s drinking water safe.
“We recognize that there are certain areas of the state that need additional attention when it comes to protecting groundwater,” said Gordon Speirs, a Brillion farmer and president of the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association. “The key is going to be to find solutions that are holistic and science-based. Is agriculture part of those solutions? Yes. In fact, the dairy community is deeply involved in work with state and federal agencies to tailor best management practices that will ensure environmental sustainability.”
Speirs pointed to farmers’ involvement with U.S. Rep. Reid Ribble’s “Save the Bay” Initiative to reduce phosphorus in Green Bay and voluntarily staying away from wells, ditches and questionable soils during the spreading of nutrients as ways that the ag industry is working to keep the state’s water clean.
While he cited no scientific data, Hansen pointed the finger at confined animal feed operations or CAFOs and the practice of spreading manure on farmland for polluting private wells in Kewaunee County.
“While CAFOs are a part of Wisconsin’s farming landscape, we are seeing more and more the problems that arise when high-volume manure spreading is allowed on land that cannot support it,” he said. “The people of Northeast Wisconsin should not have to worry about the quality of their drinking water and how it affects the health of their children.”
Since 2004 when Kewaunee County began a voluntary monitoring program, 620 wells have been tested. Of that amount, 29 percent tested for unsafe nitrates or bacteria from animal and human sources. Most of the wells tested were in the northwest part of the county. There’s an estimate of 4,200 private wells in Kewaunee County.
Speirs said the proposed legislation doesn’t address other sources of groundwater contamination.
“Non-agricultural sources of contamination must be part of the solution as well. In Door and Kewaunee counties, for example, a substantial portion of the concern has been attributed to other sources such as septic systems,” he said. “In the end, we all have the same goal — clean water.”
Under the proposed bill, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources would be required to identify karst susceptible areas and to develop regulations to establish acceptable manure spreading practices in those areas. The DNR would also assume responsibility for enforcing those regulations. Violators would face a citation or further penalties as determined by the local district attorney.
While Hansen and Genrich were drawn to the issue because of their proximity to Kewaunee County, karst is found in other parts of Wisconsin. They also pointed to a similar bill in place in Minnesota, which also has karst topography.
Farmers are also involved in several DNR work groups and one created by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, an agency of the USDA, looking at the issue of water quality in Kewaunee County.