FOX 11 Investigates: Lawmaker suggests polluted well water ignored in Kewaunee Co.
KEWAUNEE COUNTY, Wis. (WLUK) -- Agriculture is big business in Wisconsin. But some suggest all that money may have state officials overlooking a health concern.
Cow manure and human waste are showing up in the groundwater at an alarming rate in Kewaunee County, according to an ongoing USDA study.
The problem with contaminated groundwater and in turn private wells has residents and environmentalists wanted answers.
“I think we have to get legislators to do what's right for the people,” said environmentalist Jodi Parins.
“It's up to policy makers to take that data and say where's the cutoff,” said Mark Borchardt, the USDA microbiologist compiling the data on the groundwater study.
“The rules -- statewide rules -- just don't protect our water here,” admitted State Rep. Joel Kitchens, R-Sturgeon Bay, who represents Kewaunee County.
Kitchens is well aware of the contaminated wells at more than 60 percent of the homes that have been tested in the USDA study.
“Kewaunee County is getting all the attention right now but there are an alarming number of contaminated wells throughout the state,” said Kitchens.
Kitchens recently introduced legislation aimed at helping homeowners with contaminated wells get loans to drill new wells. It's called the Clean Water Access Bill. It doesn't, however, address the source of the problem.
FOX 11 Investigates asked why hasn't something been done to clean up the source of the groundwater problem?
“It has been ignored for a very long time in Kewaunee County,” said Kitchens.
Kitchens says while contamination linked to septic system waste is new, cow manure runoff has been regularly cited in the past. He suggests law makers may have been reluctant to restrict Kewaunee County's biggest business.
“I think primarily because Kewaunee County agriculture is the huge majority of the economy down there. So there was just an attitude of maybe looking the other way,” explained Kitchens.
But along with the USDA study examining the contaminated wells, the DNR is currently in the process of re-writing its NR151 rule. The DNR decline to comment on specific changes as it is still being worked out. That rule essentially dictates how much manure can be spread on farm fields statewide.
“It's a one size fits all right now,” said Parins. “So what we can spread up here is the same as what they can spread down in the middle of the state where they've got very deep soil.”
Environmentalist like Parins have long maintained the shallow soil depth over fractured bedrock in Kewaunee County can't properly filter the amounts of pesticides and manure allowed to be spread.
“We have to have a different standard here in those sensitive areas,” said Parins.
USDA scientists studying contaminated groundwater for the DNR have documented a connection with the rise in contaminated wells.
“It turns out the source, the dairy manure source, is applied at the same time probably when the ground water is most vulnerable,” explained Borchardt.
A final report is expected by the end of the year.
“For the solutions for solving this, the recommendations, those are public policy decisions we don't get into as scientists,” said Borchardt, emphasizing his team is not measuring the health risk to residents.
Which raises the question: Should residents be drinking that water?
“That's not for me to say,” answered Borchardt.
“If that was your well, would you drink the water?” FOX 11 Investigates asked.
“Nice rephrasing of the question,” said Borchardt. “For some of the things found in the water our recommendation has been not to drink it, but to treat it.”
That's what Chuck Wagner has been doing at his home for the last 15 years. He just hopes a solution can be worked out without more delays.
“I truly believe we can all move forward and someday have good clean drinking water as well as a good, vibrant ag community,” said Wagner.
“You know this is not a situation where it's either farming or clean water. They can co-exist and they have for centuries,” added Parins.
As for the DNR, “they've had many meetings with stakeholders both agriculture groups and environmentalists and they're writing those rules right now,” said Kitchens.
Farmers say regulations need to exist. But a coalition of farmers known as Peninsula Pride Farms says it is working to go above and beyond any regulations, looking for best farm management practices.
Don Niles says clean water for all is vital.
“These girls need clean drinking water,” Niles said, pointing to his dairy cows, “just like I do, just like our neighbors do. Our motivation is for everyone.”
That's the goal. FOX 11 Investigates will continue to monitor the progress.