EPA finalizing Kewaunee water plan

Lee Bergquist
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Algoma Schools Superintendent Nick Cochart is one of the residents using free water from a kiosk at Algoma High.
A kiosk at Algoma High School has provided free drinking water to Kewaunee County residents with polluted wells since February. Algoma School Superintendent Nick Cochart says the kiosk has been vandalized three times.

The Environmental Protection Agency says it is finalizing a plan to supply water to a group of residents with contaminated wells in Kewaunee County, where manure spreading by large dairy farms has been a growing source of controversy.

Officials from federal, state and county agencies met in Luxemburg with local residents Wednesday to discuss water contamination, farming practices and related issues in the wake of a task force report this summer that called for more controls over manure handling in cattle-intensive northeastern Wisconsin.

The meeting was organized by U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin.

At the meeting, Robert Kaplan, acting regional administrator of the EPA, said his agency would announce a plan to supply water to residents with tainted wells within the next month — or perhaps sooner.

EPA spokesman Pete Cassell said the agency could not elaborate because details are still being hashed out.

Farming practices have been a source of friction in many areas of the state. The issue has been especially visible in Kewaunee County, which has longstanding groundwater problems and a landscape of fractured bedrock and a large cattle population. Fractured bedrock allows manure, waste from septic systems and other pollutants to trickle more quickly through soil into aquifers.

Environmental groups also have complained that the state Department of Natural Resources has moved slowly on the region's problems, especially the short-term solution of providing water to those who need it.

Six environmental groups petitioned the EPA to use its authority to investigate water contamination in the county — an effort that laid the groundwork for the creation of a first-ever task force of residents, farmers and public officials to address groundwater contamination.

The Groundwater Collaboration Workgroup, organized by the DNR, issued a report in June that made dozens of recommendations, including changes in farming practices and more oversight from the DNR and county officials.

The group also called for a protocol to provide an emergency supply of water to people whose wells are contaminated by pollution from sources outside their own property.

Kaplan wrote DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp on March 28, and said:

"While you are working on these proposed solutions, it is important that residents of Kewaunee County have access to clean drinking water. Currently there is only one water kiosk available in the northern part of the county for residents to use.

"I know that you share my concerns about the availability of clean drinking water for residents with private well contamination."

Sarah Geers, an attorney with Midwest Environmental Advocates, applauded the EPA's willingness to coordinate efforts to supply water. "It's been necessary because the DNR has been unable or unwilling to do it," she said.

DNR spokesman Jim Dick said the agency has been involved in planning for a water supply but referred other questions to the EPA.

Stepp released an opinion piece on April 6 saying the agency will continue to pursue enforcement cases and promised a "more robust approach" to auditing manure spreading practices.

"Sound science takes some time, but this administration has invested the resources to actually seek to solve the problem with ground water quality in this region," Stepp wrote.

Said Geers: "It's really frustrating when the DNR portrays itself as doing everything it can, but my take is that things have been slowed at the higher ends of the DNR."

Baldwin said in a statement that she organized the meeting so residents had a platform to meet with federal officials.

"There is clearly some frustration that the Walker administration isn't giving citizen concerns the attention they deserve, so it's important they know I am listening and working to help bring people together on solutions. This is a crisis that demands action and it’s important that all stakeholders know I'm committed to doing my part to address these challenges here in Kewaunee County,” her statement said.

Unquestionably, private wells have been contaminated in the county. But whether manure is always the source of the problem is in question.

Environmentalists and local residents concerned about the operations of large farms have pointed to concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, as the likely source. Kewaunee ranks among the highest number of CAFOs in the state with 16.

"It would be a mistake to think that the only source is agriculture," said Mark A. Borchardt, a microbiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture who is conducting wells studies for the DNR. "We have evidence of both human sources and agricultural sources."

He said there are nearly 5,000 private septic systems in the county.

Borchardt and a group of researchers are studying the results of water sampling from 59 wells in the county. An initial report of 30 wells in May found that 11 of the wells tested positive for salmonella and rotavirus. "I am surprised by the level of contamination," Borchardt said at the time.

The study's final results will point to the primary source of pollution, and the environmental factors that caused it, he said.

People looking for a clean source of drinking water have been able to obtain free water from a kiosk at the high school in Algoma since February.

Nick Cochart, superintendent of the schools, said that nearly 60 families are using the kiosk. The families are given a card to swipe to gain access to the water.

One of the families affected is Cochart's. They live in the Town of Lincoln where there has been higher well contamination. Periodic tests have shown high levels of nitrates, which can originate from sources such as fertilizer and manure. Infants and pregnant women are at a higher risk of harm from nitrates, which can cause "blue baby syndrome" due to a reduction of oxygen in blood.

"It's been frustrating, really, all of the finger-pointing here," said Cochart, who said the school will continue to supply water.

But Geers said the kiosk in Algoma"is not sufficient; it won't last forever and it's hard for some folks to travel to get water."