A dairy farmer-led conservation group is taking action to provide clean drinking water for homeowners in Kewaunee County who have wells contaminated with harmful bacteria.
During a press conference held Wednesday, Sept. 7, Peninsula Pride Farms announced that it has developed a program, called Water Well, to help ensure that rural residents at risk of getting sick from E. coli, no matter the source, get clean water now and have a means for longer-term protection. Among key aspects of the program, the group will pay for bottled water and a well inspection for homeowners, help cover the costs for a water treatment system if it’s necessary, and pay for servicing the system.
“As farmers and members of this community, safe, clean drinking water is important to our neighbors and our families,” said Don Niles, president of the nonprofit Peninsula Pride Farms. “This is an important step in providing immediate help to people who need it.”
The water program comes on the heels of recommendations by Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources-led workgroups that local groups develop solutions to protect well owners. Farmers joined conservationists, regulators and others for more than a year-and-a-half to identify ways to protect ground water quality in the county, where fractured bedrock and shallow soils make the water more susceptible to contamination.
A short-term solutions workgroup encouraged citizen groups, non-profit organizations or farmers to develop an efficient and practical method of providing emergency water supplies to homeowners. Peninsula Pride made the commitment, Niles said.
“We are not just talking and listening, we are acting,” he said.
Niles said Water Well be funded by three sources: Peninsula Pride Farms member dues, support from businesses and a state grant issued to the group at its start. Among the businesses are Nicolet Bank, HSHS Prevea and Breakthrough Fuels.
Water Well will work in coordination with existing county and state services for water testing and possible financial assistance.
“As a health department, we are excited to finally have an option to offer to families facing unsafe drinking water. This has been a county-wide concern for a long time,” said Cindy Kinnard, Kewaunee County public health director. “We truly appreciate and support Peninsula Pride’s efforts in addressing this issue and will continue to work toward improving the health and safety of our residents.”
Well contamination has been a decades-long problem in the county. More sophisticated testing in recent years has provided a clearer picture of the sources and extent. Agricultural practices, septic systems and substandard wells have been identified as contributing factors. The contamination source is not a condition for qualification in Peninsula Pride’s program.
“This isn’t about assigning blame; it’s about finding solutions,” Niles said. “We do not want children in our community getting sick.”
In a letter of support, DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp called the Water Well program “a large proactive step toward providing solutions to the issues facing businesses and citizens in karst areas with shallow soils.”
“It is even more impressive that this offer is available regardless of the source of the E. coli, whether it is from agricultural activities, a septic system or even from the well itself,” Stepp said. “Peninsula Pride is to be commended for not only the voluntary offer itself, but the spirit of helping neighbors through which it is made. This is local initiative at its best.”
Niles said that while the new program is a short-term solution, his group continues to aggressively push forward on long-term improvements above and beyond regulations. The young organization already has more than 40 members, including dairy farmers with farms of all sizes, crop farmers and dairy-related business representatives. The farm members represent nearly 40 percent of the dairy cows in the region and an equal percentage of cropland.
The organization has sponsored field days where scientists and farmers demonstrate innovative best-management practices. Members are given incentives through cost-share programs.
“I am convinced that Kewaunee County can have safe, clean drinking water and a prosperous dairy community,” Niles said.
The Nature Conservancy
Peninsula Pride’s partners include The Nature Conservancy, a highly regarded environmental group active in Wisconsin and around the world.
The group’s commitment to collaboration and continuous improvement is remarkable to Steve Richter, director of conservation programs for The Nature Conservancy in Wisconsin.
“Kudos to Peninsula Pride for taking part in the “DNR-led” workgroup. It is through such collaboration that big changes can occur and differences overcome, with the outcome being a healthier landscape of people and nature as more actions are implemented,” Richter said.
“Some actions, like the step taken by Peninsula Pride can make a difference immediately. Other steps take time. … We hope the public will have patience with these efforts as changing practices that work with the operations of the dairy farms will take time.”
Peninsula Pride is “embarking on a new role for farmers, one that is very much appreciated by the Conservancy,” Richter said.
Peninsula Pride Farms was established in March 2016 as a nonprofit organization. Its goal is to leverage the ingenuity of the agricultural community, university research and scientists to protect ground and surface water in Kewaunee and southern Door counties in Wisconsin through innovative conservation practices and technology. The 501c3 organization is supported by member dues, conservation grants and donations from businesses and individuals who share the goal of protecting water quality.