Saratoga targets manure contamination
Saratoga — Farmers in Saratoga could now face thousands of dollars in penalties if they don’t notify the town government about water contamination on their land.
The new rule, part of two ordinances Town Board members passed in late November, comes amid concerns about a proposed large-scale dairy here that would have almost as many cows as Saratoga residents.
"It's about our water," said Rhonda Carrell, a member of the citizens' group Protect Wood County and its Neighbors.
The group opposes plans to build Golden Sands Dairy, a 5,300-cow farm that would operate and grow crops on nearly 8,000 acres, most of which are in Saratoga.
The Wysocki Family of Companies is seeking to build Golden Sands, which would produce 55 million gallons of liquid manure and 25,000 tons of solid manure each year, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. That manure would be applied on fields with sandy and permeable soils — which the town has said are susceptible to contamination — and near homes that predominantly have private water wells.
Citing extensive scientific data, water sample tests and groundwater modeling, the new ordinances give the town authority to take action when manure contaminates groundwater, said town attorney Paul Kent.
The town has projected 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. A recent groundwater sample in the town has already showed unsafe levels of nitrates; the sample was taken from a monitoring well just west of land converted from pine plantation to agriculture within the last two and a half years, according to the town.
Monitoring wells at Wysocki’s 3,800-cow Central Sands Dairy in Juneau County also showed nitrate levels substantially higher than state drinking water standards last year.
In light of that evidence, Kent said, "it became clear that the threat of an operation like the Golden Sands Dairy to the town’s drinking water supply was real and significant."
Under one of the ordinances, farmers who spread manure must comply with their nutrient management plan, wastewater discharge permits and limits on groundwater contaminants such as nitrates. The town also has the power to investigate complaints, inspect properties and enforce federal and state water quality standards.
If farmers become aware that groundwater has become contaminated, the ordinance requires them to notify the town and identify how the problem will be resolved. Farmers in such instances also would be required to provide the town with groundwater testing results that are provided to other agencies, such as the DNR.
In response, the town could further investigate the contamination or order the farm to install groundwater monitoring wells, apply manure differently or take steps to restore groundwater quality, among other actions.
Violators could be fined $1,000 to $5,000 and the town could take further legal action and require the violator to pay for enforcement costs.
Another ordinance requires the town to inspect manure storage facilities to ensure they are properly constructed, investigate complaints, issue permits and keep records related to such activities.
Anyone who seeks to build, alter or close a manure storage facility must seek a permit, submit site plans and details about how much waste will be produced, identify environmental conditions of where the facility would be built and show that cropland can handle the animal waste once it’s out of storage.
The ordinance also gives the town authority to require that malfunctioning storage facilities be repaired and properly maintained, and that operators clean up any waste run-off.
Farmers who refuse inspection or violate the ordinance could have their permits denied or revoked, and the town would have authority to require that waste facilities be fixed if problems are found. Violators also could be fined up to $1,000 and be required to pay prosecution costs.
The ordinances took effect immediately when passed on Nov. 30, although the DNR must approve one provision in them, Kent said.
Town officials do not believe they will need to hire more staff to administer the ordinances. That job rests principally with the DNR, Kent said, while the town could step in if the state fails to act.
But should the town seek to enforce the new ordinances, it could face resistance from the dairy industry. John Holevoet, director of government affairs for the Dairy Business Association, which lobbies on behalf of dairy farmers and milk-product producers, said the group opposes any actions that change uniform regulations in Wisconsin.
Holevoet said “a handful of local governments throughout the state are testing the bounds of their regulatory authority," and he guessed that Saratoga's new ordinances could be subject to a legal challenge, although the association would not be involved in such litigation, he said. Wood, Brown and Manitowoc counties have enacted similar waste storage rules as Saratoga.
“It’s too early to tell how these ordinances will affect people,” Holevoet said. “Town residents can expect to pay to defend these new rules before they have much impact, if any.”
For Carrell, one of those residents, such costs might be worth it. Carrell owns a hair salon in Saratoga that is surrounded by fields where Golden Sands intends to apply manure, and she said she fears her clients may go elsewhere if the water becomes tainted.
"If I don't have clean, pure water, I'm out of business," Carrell said.