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Yesterday, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, or DNR, said that it would not be implementing new rule changes to address nitrate contamination.
The DNR has been pursuing those rule changes since 2019, when Governor Evers proclaimed “the year of clean water” and instructed state agencies to address nitrate contamination in groundwater.
Now, the DNR says that their work is being held up by legislative rulemaking – and that due to timelines established by the legislature, the department does not have time to complete the rule-making process.
Nitrates are used in fertilizers to improve crop yields, and make their way into the environment through industrial agriculture. . According to the DNR’s website, exposure to high levels of nitrates can cause birth defects, thyroid disease and colon cancer.
The changes sought by the DNR would modify a rule called NR 151. That regulation has been in place for decades. But these changes would set targeted standards in the parts of Wisconsin that have particularly permeable soils.
Scott Laeser is the water program director for environmental advocacy group Clean Wisconsin. He says certain areas of Wisconsin are more vulnerable to nitrate contamination in groundwater than others.
“What makes certain areas vulnerable to nitrate contamination is the combination of both the type of soil and its depth as well as the type of bedrock that’s there,” said Laeser. “In central Wisconsin, wells are vulnerable to nitrate contamination because the soil is very sandy and nitrates move quickly through sandy soil. In southwest Wisconsin and northeast Wisconsin and other parts of western Wisconsin, those wells are vulnerable because of the relatively shallow soil and the cracked bedrock. And so once that nitrate pollution gets through those shallow soils, it can move really quickly through that cracked bedrock and then pollute drinking water sources.”
According to Laeser, safe nitrate levels for drinking water are 10 milligrams per liter. He says that anywhere between 42,000 and 80,000 wells in Wisconsin have unsafe levels of nitrates.
However, implementing these standards would not have been free, and industry groups such as the Dairy Business Association pushed back against the standards. According to the Wisconsin State Journal, the DNR estimated that the cost of the new standards would have been about $1 million a year, split between businesses and local governments, with the average dairy farm being forced to pay $30,000. Furthermore, the DNR found that actually replacing the wells would have cost more than $440 million. However, Laeser says that the benefits would have outweighed the costs, and that the state is losing money by not fixing the nitrate issue.
“Our organization published a paper in a peer-reviewed journal last year estimating that the annual medical costs borne by Wisconsin families alone because of nitrate contamination at somewhere between $23 and $80 million,” said Laeser. “What we should really be focusing on is the cost of inaction, and that cost is borne by families with contaminated drinking water.”
Laeser wrote in an op-ed in the Wisconsin Examiner that the guidelines of the rulemaking process ultimately sunk the proposed rule change. As part of the process, the Wisconsin DNR held a public hearing to hear the comments of other citizens. Some, such as Wes Davis of Janesville, spoke in favor of the change, saying that he was concerned about groundwater quality.
“People who drink the water with high nitrates have to be concerned,” said Davis. “I’m also concerned about the nitrates in the part of the county where it’s 30 or 40 parts per million, something we can’t afford to have. People drinking the water there face real health issues, and some of those people are the farmers themselves.”
Others, such as a resident of Janesville, spoke against, saying that the DNR had not properly justified their decision to update the rules.
“There are current runoff standards existing under current law,” he said. “We don’t know if these standards have been put into place, nor any studies showing how successful these standards have been. This should have been done before we are burdened with more rules.”
The Wisconsin DNR did not respond to a request for comment by time of broadcast.