Water Quality Task Force holds forum in Mauston, Wisconsin
The crowd for the 3rd Speaker’s Water Quality Task Force Meeting at Mauston High School last Wednesday June 12th, was already in place before the scheduled 2:00 pm start time. The standard format for these meetings is presentations from invited groups, followed by public testimony by any who choose to be heard.
Opening the meeting was John (Duke) Welter, Outreach Coordinator for Driftless Area Restoration Effort, representing Trout Unlimited. Welter described the stream and streambank restoration efforts of the group and funding needed to continue these projects. Using dramatic before and after pictures, Welter showed the work done on Blue River in Iowa County. The original picture showed a silt bottom and 6’ vertical mud wall banks. After restoration, there was a gravel bed with a gradually sloped, and lush green bank.
Welter noted that research has shown that these changes dramatically improve water quality and significantly decrease run-off pollution from surrounding farmland. Representative Tranel (R-49th Assembly District) questioned Welter as to whether these changes are actually a restoration to the natural state or whether the highly eroded state was the natural state of the river.
Welter said, “We may be headed toward a record number of manure spills in 2019.” There was questioning by the Task Force members as to whether these spills are a result of obvious neglect or accident/equipment failure. The response was that there really is no difference between the two, carelessness of any kind is a problem and a few bad actors give all responsible farmers a bad name.
The final issue was that of Nutrient Management Plans (NMPs) required of farmers and the fact that fines for non-adherence to these plans are minimal and that monitoring of these plans is not being done because of lack of staffing at the DNR. Non-adherence to these plans can result in unnecessary run-off of nitrates into ground and surface water.
The next speakers were Andrew Skwor and Tim Boerner of the Wisconsin Association of Professional Agricultural Consultants. Skwor and Boerner both described the codes and regulations for locating liquid manure storage systems and the company’s writing of NMPs.
Task Force member, Representative Katrina Shankland (D- 71st Assembly District) questioned whether NMPs should be as equally focused on pollution prevention as on crop production. Currently, these plans are focused solely on crop production. There were also questions as to whether those involved in the selling of fertilizer should be allowed to write NMPs for farmers, stressing that nitrogen use efficiency could be improved so as to minimize nitrate pollution of surface and ground water alike.
John Umhoefer, from the Wisconsin Cheese Association, presented the actions they take to minimize water pollution. Umhoefer shared that due to the rinsing of lines, the loss of milk runs at about 3% and is largely unavoidable. He noted what the organization does have to offer, is their waste salt brine and are offering the brine free to counties to be used for road treatment in place of rock salt.
The most compelling testimony came from Sauk County Conservation Manager, Melissa Keenan, Nancy Eggleston from the Wood County Health Department, and Dustin Ladd of the Juneau County Conservationist Administrator. An infant in Wood County recently died of a neural tube defect, a condition linked to high drinking water nitrate levels. Preliminary well testing in the Central Sands Dairy region shows 41% of wells exceed the 10 mg/L concentration considered the maximum safe level. In Juneau County the testing has revealed that 31% of wells had water unsafe to drink due to nitrate levels detected at over 40 mg/L.
For people with nitrate contamination of up to 20 mg/L in their water supply, a possible solution is a reverse osmosis treatment filter that can remove the contamination, but unfortunately above 20 mg/L they are not effective.
One breeder of show dogs with a contaminated well in Juneau County stated that her business had been destroyed by her dogs’ inability to reproduce since the nitrates increased beyond what her RO system can filter. She said her nitrates were not above health standards when she bought the property and brought copies of her well tests.
As a result, and because of increasing contamination levels, a case was made that funding for treating the problem with filtration is not nearly enough. It is necessary to find sources of safe water in this area in addition to research to find alternative treatment for high nitrate contaminated water. They also emphasized the need for NMPs to include consideration of ground water pollution in addition to crop production.
With limited resources, staff funding is a great concern for the task force. The state is mandated to fund three Conservation staff positions per county: the 1st at 100%, the 2nd at 70%, and the 3rd at 50%, and currently that is not happening. Representative Shankland indicated that an increase of $12.4 million is needed to fully fund the 2nd position and $15 million to fully fund all three positions per county. The amount currently being considered by the Joint Finance Committee is only $9 million.
Final invited testimony was from, President of Petenwell and Castle Rock Stewards (PACRS) Rick Georgeson. The group is a grassroots organization that has been working to prevent the discharge of phosphates into portions of the Wisconsin River.
Georgeson shared, that after extensive testing to determine “Total Maximum Daily Loads” (TMDL) of phosphates, the group has been working with residents and farmers to ‘reduce the phosphate discharge into the river’. TMDL is the maximum amount of a pollutant that a body of water can receive while still meeting water quality standards.
In the Petenwell and Castle Rock areas, the issue is huge algae blooms that are destroying the recreational and commercial value of the river and its surrounding areas. Georgeson stated that the group has been successful in establishing relationships with farmers, which have led to increase no till and use of cover crops, which he noted are instrumental in significantly reducing the run-off of phosphates into tributaries emptying into the river.
Georgeson ended his address with an inspiring quote from Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Even though invited testimony was scheduled to conclude at 4:30 pm, public testimony did not begin until 5:50pm. It appeared that more than half of the names called had already left and did not testify. Of those who did testify, many were associated with the PACRS group - homeowners and business owners whose property values and income opportunities have been reduced by the blue green algae affecting the lakes. Most of them were residents of the sandy agricultural area in northern Juneau and Wood Counties, where rapidly rising nitrates in private wells have impacted health and lowered property values.
A farm group in the region has entered into an MOU with the counties to provide well tests, bottled water and Reverse Osmosis filtration systems to those affected by contaminated wells, but citizens told the Task Force that the bottled water provided has been far less than what is needed, and that only 7 RO systems have been installed.
Several farmers testified about the considerable care they take to conserve both soil and water, and noted the growing challenges presented by extreme weather events associated with a changing climate.
Senator Patrick Testin said that the Joint Finance Committee had approved his proposal to provide a one-time $2500 payment to owners of contaminated wells, but questioning by other members of the task force revealed that while RO systems can be as inexpensive (as a few hundred dollars), the filters need to be regularly replaced. Drilling new wells when nitrate levels are too high to be filtered can cost a minimum of $10,000 and the deep casing needed in sandy soils is more expensive.
Editor’s note: Kriss Marion contributed to the content of this article.