Nearly 200 citizens asked questions and listened to answers about Golden Sands Dairy, a proposed large-scale farm in Saratoga. Jacob Byk/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
SARATOGA - A proposed 5,300-cow dairy farm in Saratoga would likely contaminate residents’ drinking wells and pump out more groundwater than some cities, according to new data released Tuesday by opponents of the farm.
Debate over the controversial Golden Sands Dairy has been simmering since 2012, when the Wysocki Family of Companies first sought building permits for the facility. The farm would operate and grow crops on nearly 8,000 acres, most of which are in Saratoga.
The township itself and a coalition of residents have since sought to block Golden Sands, which has spurred lawsuits, efforts to enact local regulations and protests.
The latest findings, which were prepared by lawyers and a scientist for the town, renewed worries among residents that the pristine water they now drink and swim in could be sullied and depleted.
“I am concerned for the wellbeing of myself and my children,” said Timm Rosenthal, 39, who has lived in Saratoga for most of his life.
Rosenthal was one of 180 people who attended a presentation Tuesday night at the Saratoga Town Hall about the research on the planned farm.
Among the most significant revelations: The town is projecting that people living closest to Golden Sands would have unsafe levels of nitrates in their drinking wells within three to five years after the farm starts spreading manure and other fertilizers on fields.
More wells would likely be contaminated as years go by, according to Milwaukee hydrogeologist Dr. John Jansen, who has been retained by the town as an independent expert.
ansen developed the projection based on an analysis of information Golden Sands submitted to the state Department of Natural Resources, which has oversight of the farm because it would meet the definition of a concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO. CAFOs are large farms that are regulated differently under state law than smaller operations.
Golden Sands expects to produce 55 million gallons of liquid manure and 25,000 tons of solid manure each year, according to the DNR. That manure would be applied on fields with sandy and permeable soils — which are “highly susceptible to groundwater contamination,” according to the town — and near homes that predominantly have private water wells.
“We have so many residential wells within a short distance of those fields,” said Paul Kent, one of Saratoga’s attorneys. “That’s what creates the concern from a public health standpoint.”
An excessive amount of nitrates in water can restrict the flow of oxygen in the bloodstream, which is especially dangerous to infants who can develop a condition called blue baby syndrome, according to Kent.
The risk is not abstract. Monitoring wells at Wysocki’s 3,800-cow Central Sands Dairy, in the town of Armenia in Juneau County, showed nitrate levels substantially higher than state drinking water standards last year. Tests in one well showed nitrate levels at 77 parts per million in July 2015. The state considers nitrate levels above 10 parts per million unsafe.
Nutrients that crops don't consume, which can leach into the groundwater, have also been cited as a partial cause of toxic algae blooms on lakes, including those in central Wisconsin.
Officials on Tuesday raised further concerns about the amount of groundwater Golden Sands plans to pump. The farm would be able to draw 48 million gallons of water per day using 33 high-capacity wells it is seeking to install, according to Jansen. While the farm would not need to pump that amount year-round, it is likely Golden Sands would draw 1.6 to 2.4 billion gallons of water each summer to irrigate crops — more than the city of Stevens Point pumps in a year for its municipal water supply and more than twice that of Wisconsin Rapids, according to the town.
Golden Sands’ pumping, the town said in a statement, “will place significant stress on the aquifer beneath Saratoga” and could substantially reduce the flow of nearby trout streams.
Jim Wysocki, co-owner of the Wysocki Family of Companies, did not respond to a request for comment about the town’s claims. A DNR spokesman on Tuesday declined comment.
The DNR is in the process of evaluating the environmental impact of Golden Sands and has repeatedly delayed release of a report on that analysis. Kent said Tuesday he has been told the report will likely be more than 300 pages when completed. Once the DNR issues a draft version of the document, called an environmental impact statement, citizens will have an opportunity to submit feedback in writing and at a public hearing — action that could be months away, Kent said.
Still, Saratoga’s 5,385 residents are not sitting idly. Helen Donahue and her husband, Leroy, have been vocal opponents of Golden Sands since it was proposed. Helen has testified at hearings at the Capitol in Madison and before the state Natural Resources Board on groundwater policies, and she and Leroy were both in attendance at Tuesday's presentation.
Should the farm be approved, the Donahues said they fear what will happen to the town's water supply.
“There needs to be a balance found between business, agriculture and the private land owner,” Helen Donahue said.