In response to the contamination of drinking water in Kewaunee County last year, the Department of Natural Resources created restrictions for the spread of manure in northeast Wisconsin.
Yesterday, the Natural Resources Board, which oversees the DNR, voted to allow the agency to go ahead with rules that would put further restrictions on manure spreading. That means the DNR can now draft even more restrictions on manure spreading for areas deemed at risk of groundwater pollution.
Scott Laeser is the Water Program Director for Clean Wisconsin, an environmental group that supports rules restricting manure and fertilizer use.
According to Laeser, prolonged exposure to high levels of nitrates, about 10 milligrams per liter, can cause birth defects and cancer risks in adults.
Laeser also says yesterday’s vote was important, but that it’s just the beginning of a lengthy process.
“Now the DNR will really have to dig into this issue to look at this problem, to look at where the trouble spots are, and to come up with some new tools for the State and local conservation departments to use to reduce nitrate in groundwater and in private wells,” Laeser says.
One of those “trouble spots” may be the southwestern part of the state, where some private wells in Grant, Iowa, and Lafayette County have been contaminated by livestock manure.
Testing this spring found 32 of a selected 35 wells in those counties had fecal contamination. A retesting of those wells in August found 25 of 34 selected wells were contaminated. The latest results were released a week and a half ago.
Darin Von Ruden is the President of the Wisconsin Farmers Union Board of Directors and represents those counties.
He says these rules, whenever they take effect, would help the region avoid greater issues.
“It’s better to take care of the problem before you have a problem, and looking at what’s been happening in Kewaunee County, we should definitely learn our lesson from that and try to avoid those same issues here in southwest Wisconsin,” Von Ruden says.
Earlier this year, research from U.S. Department of Agriculture microbiologist Mark Borchardt showed that over 60% of 131 wells sampled in Kewaunee County in 2017 were contaminated with fecal microbes.
Support for the resolution to restrict manure spreading was overwhelming, but not unanimous. Bill Bruins is the owner and operator of Homeland Dairy in Fond du Lac County, and cast the lone dissenting vote during yesterday’s board meeting.
He says the issue of contaminated water is complex, and that regulating agriculture isn’t guaranteed to fix it.
“The scope statement was worded quite broadly, and I think a lot of the public [has] the feeling that if we just simply impose statewide performance standards on agriculture, then that would just totally take care of it, [but] there’s more to this issue than a simple fix by establishing some regulations on agriculture,” Bruins says.
Bruins also says he would like to see State legislators take immediate action by helping rural well-owners pay for nitrate filtration systems to make their contaminated water drinkable.
Natural Resources Board Chair Dr. Frederick Prehn, who was appointed to the Board under former Governor Scott Walker, says whatever rules the DNR drafts will be costly.
“This cannot be shouldered on the back of agriculture by itself. [The costs are] going to have to go down the food chain. Ag has a job to do; they need to grow food. And if the public thinks this whole issue of nitrates is going to be on the back of the farmer, it can’t be, and that’s not what the Board or the Department [is] looking for,” Prehn says.
The Associated Press reported that the DNR thinks manure and fertilizer prohibitions could cost stakeholders between $50,000 to $5 million every year, but Prehn also says he thinks that estimate is “extremely low.”
Prehn estimates that the process of drafting these rules will take about two years.