Ryan Schuessler

Something’s in the water in Kewaunee County, Wisconsin

One-third of wells tested have high levels of nitrates and coliform bacteria; some blame area factory farms

Editor's note: This is part 3 of a three-part series examining Wisconsin’s water resources. Part one examined the politicization of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Part two looked at the effect high capacity wells are having on the state’s Central Sands region.

LINCOLN, Wis. — Lynda Cochart has her own well, but she and her family drink only bottled water they buy themselves.

“We don’t use the water at all,” the 68-year-old resident of Kewaunee County in the southern portion of the Door Peninsula said. “I used to get sick, but I [haven’t] gotten sick since I quit drinking it.”

Cochart first noticed there was something wrong with her water in 2010 when she was inexplicably getting sick, and subsequent tests over the next four years confirmed that her well was contaminated. And she wasn’t alone — there has never been a comprehensive survey done, but one-third of the Kewaunee County drinking water wells voluntarily tested by the University of Wisconsin, U.S. Department of Agriculture, or other organizations have contaminates such as nitrates and coliform bacteria.

A small 2014 study by the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point of 10 wells in Lincoln found that six had measurable levels of coliform bacteria.

“When you live with water like that, you are so aware of water,” Cochart said. “You are so aware of how precious the water is.”

Kewaunee County has always been dairy country, but many see the recent boom of dairy CAFOs — concentrated animal feeding operations, which critics refer to as “factory farming” — as the source of the region’s groundwater contamination. Statewide, there were only 50 in 2010. Today, there are 250.

In 2007, there were around 73,500 cows in Kewaunee County, according to the Census of Agriculture. Today there are nearly 100,000 — the highest concentration per acre in Wisconsin. In a county of around 20,000 people, cows alone produce as much waste as nearly a million humans. There are 173 dairy operations in the county, and 16 CAFOs.

A CAFO in Kewaunee County, which has the highest concentration of cattle per acre in Wisconsin.
Ryan Schuessler

Farms liquefy much of that manure and spray it onto fields as fertilizer. Farmers are required to plan how they will control the amount of nutrients and chemicals draining off their land into the waterways. But some residents and researchers say the liquefied manure seeps into the aquifer and then wells, where it comes out of taps like the one in Cochart’s house.

Last tested in 2014, Cochart’s water has tested positive for coliform bacteria, salmonella, bovine viruses, and was found to have elevated levels of nitrates (greater than 10 parts per million). Coliform bacteria can cause intestinal illnesses, and elevated nitrates in drinking water can cause blue baby syndrome — a blood disorder — or even death in infants.

Cochart is part of a group of citizens petitioning the Environmental Protection Agency to act under the Clean Water Act. According to an EPA's Region 5 spokesperson, the agency received the petition and is reviewing it. In 2011, Wisconsin's DNR committed to resolving 75 environmental and regulatory issues identified by the EPA, and in 2015 reported that it had resolved 40 of them. The EPA's spokesperson said the agency is "reviewing to confirm WDNR's assertions."

CAFOs in Wisconsin require a permit from the state Department of Natural Resources, which under Gov. Scott Walker’s leadership has appointed a secretary lauded for her “chamber of commerce” approach to natural resources. The current DNR administration has lower enforcement rates than under previous governors, and has faced budget and staff cuts.

“Yes, there are regulations,” said Lee Luft, Kewaunee County Supervisor. “What we’re finding is that they haven’t been effective. If these plans were working, we should have some of the best water in the state. But we don’t.”

James Dick, DNR spokesman, said “whether the issue is high capacity wells, CAFOs, quality of our waterways or more, the Wisconsin DNR is doing what is within the confines of current state and federal law to address the issues. We are enforcing the Clean Water Act and work with the EPA in doing so.”

John Pagel, a Kewaunee County CAFO owner — who is also the chairman of the county’s Land and Water Committee — said the dairy industry is only partly to blame.

“We have multiple problems, not just one problem,” said Pagel, a lifelong resident of the county who said he remembers there being water contamination in the past. “And we sure can’t blame the CAFOs because we had this problem 50 years ago, before there were any CAFOs in Kewaunee County.”

Pagel identified residential septic systems as another source of contamination. However, Luft said the county has some of the highest septic update and compliance rates in the whole state.

Everyone agrees, however, on the county’s stroke of geological misfortune. Much of the county is made up of karst topography — porous, cracked rock — with shallow soils on top.

“Anything that’s happening on the landscape can filter down through the cracks, crevices, sinkholes, and get right into the aquifer,” said Davina Bonness, director of the Kewaunee County Land and Water Conservation department, who is working to develop a comprehensive well testing plan.

“We’re spreading far too much liquid manure on very shallow soils over fractured bedrock and karst geology,” said Kewaunee County resident Mick Sagrillo. “This is not the place where you should be dumping bucket loads of manure.”

Sagrillo started testing his own well when he heard a CAFO was coming in near his house, where he has lived since 1978. He said the nitrate levels in his tap water more than doubled when a CAFO started spreading liquefied manure on fields near his home. They went back down when the CAFO stopped spraying the manure.

Critics fear Wisconsin’s GOP-controlled government is not likely to increase regulation on industry, particularly big agriculture. In the meantime, liquefied manure is being released at an increasing rate in Wisconsin. At least 4.8 million gallons of liquefied manure has been spilt since 2009, 3 million of which was spilt in 2013 and 2014 alone.

“All of the enforcement is being generated by public monitoring and reporting of individuals,” said area farmer Lynn Utesch, referencing the lack of enforcement on the part of the DNR. “There is nobody who is actually checking up on these CAFOs to actually see if they’re following what they’re supposed to be doing, on a regular basis.”

“I would say the DNR is trying to give us additional attention, different than what they have in the past,” Pagel, the CAFO owner, countered. “I believe their efforts are strong. I think they’re trying harder, with a wider stroke, trying to work with everybody and trying to make something happen faster than try and bring down the heavy hammer.”

A handful of municipalities in the county have banned liquefied manure spreading, and the county recently passed an ordinance that forbids spreading in winter months — aimed at curbing the amount potentially draining into the aquifer.

“The farmers of Kewaunee County understand that there is an issue also,” he added. “And their attitudes and their efforts are all going in the right direction. We’re going to continue to fix this problem, but it’s not going to happen overnight, and the problem didn’t come here overnight, either.”

Kewaunee County isn’t the only area having trouble with drinking water. In the southeastern part of the state, historical use of coal ash in construction projects has lead to heavy metals rendering some drinking wells unsafe, according to a 2014 report from Clean Wisconsin.

According to the report, there is a correlation between levels of molybdenum — a metal toxic in high concentrations — and proximity to sites where coal ash was legally used during construction projects. The closer the drinking well to a site, the report said, the higher the levels of molybdenum.

In southeastern Wisconsin, one in every five wells tested exceeded state and federal safety levels of molybdenum, according to the report.

Yorkville Elementary School in rural Racine County was one site identified in the report, and principal Dave Alexander said in an email that the school still has to provide bottled water to students because of high levels of molybdenum in the building’s drinking water.

“As an American, as a Town of Lincoln citizen — any human being and any animal deserves safe and clean drinking water,” Lynda Cochart said. “And there’s something wrong with this country if you can’t have that.”

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