Working for Clean Groundwater in Kewaunee County

 

For years, citizens in Kewaunee County have dealt with the ongoing crisis of groundwater contamination.

When many residents turn on their tap they’re not sure whether their water is safe to drink or if it’s tainted with dangerous bacteria, nitrates, and other contaminants. Kewaunee County residents have had to struggle through this crisis for too long with no signs of relief from state or federal agencies.

Taking Action

In October 2014,  Clean Wisconsin, Midwest Environmental Advocates, and a group of concerned Kewaunee County residents asked the EPA to use its Safe Drinking Water Act authority to look into the source of polluted groundwater in Kewaunee County and to provide clean drinking water to citizens. We requested EPA investigate pollutants in Kewaunee’s drinking water to pinpoint safety concerns, create a monitoring system, and determine what can be done to implement sufficient management practices to protect against future contamination.

A Long History of Contamination

The situation in Kewaunee has been dire for many years. Data compiled between 2004 and 2014 shows that nearly one-third of private drinking wells tested in Kewaunee County contained bacteria and/or nitrates in excess of the drinking water standard.

The most recent study, which tested wells between April 2016 and March 2017, confirms the risks residents have long faced while illuminating a more widespread and serious problem. This study found that up to 60 percent of wells that tested positive for indicators of contamination, like total coliform, contained fecal bacteria, primarily from bovine sources. The study also found wells that tested positive for Cryptosporidium, which can be life threatening for children and the elderly. Estimates from the lead researcher indicate that if wells were continually tested, figures for contaminated wells could be upwards of 90 percent.

In my professional opinion, if we sampled more than once, [the contamination rate] would creep up to 90 percent.

Mark Borchardt, 2017 study lead

Microbiologist, U.S. Department of Agriculture

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Percentage of Tested Wells Contaminated with Bacteria or Nitrates, 2004-2014 study

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Percentage of Contaminated Wells that Tested Positive for Fecal Bacteria, 2016-2017

Times as Many Cows as People in Kewaunee

Agriculture is not the sole cause of the contamination but is a major contributor, and intensive agricultural practices are on the rise in Kewaunee County, which has the highest concentration of large livestock confinements of any county in the state. Records show that the animals on Kewaunee’s largest farms, combined, produce the biological waste equivalent of 900,000 humans annually, about nine times the size of the population of the City of Green Bay.

Manure Spreading Rule Changes

Because of our petition to the EPA to step in to fix the issues in Kewaunee, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to formed the Groundwater Collaboration Workgroup in 2015 to research and formalize possible rule changes for how, where, and when manure can be spread on farmland in Kewaunee County. Their final report was completed in June 2016.

Since then, the DNR has been reviewing the recommended rule changes in it’s efforts to update NR 151, the state administrative rules on manure spreading. The DNR has recently revealed their proposed updates to NR 151, which include:

  • greater manure application setbacks from private wells and other groundwater contamination points such as sinkholes;
  • prohibitions on manure application in areas with the shallowest soils;
  • requirements that farms moderate the rate at which they apply manure in vulnerable areas.

These provisions are a good base for a final rule, but more work is needed to ensure Kewaunee County residents have access to safe water. For more info on these proposed rule changes, visit the DNR’s website.

 

The DNR is expected to ask for public comments on the rule changes as early as September. You can find updates on developments and ways to make your voice heard on this issue here in the coming weeks and months.