DNR must lead to protect drinking water
Cryptosporidium. E. coli. Salmonella. Rotavirus A.
That reads like an inventory of pathogens from a biomedical research lab. Unfortunately, it’s actually a list of the dangerous fecal pathogens you can find in Kewaunee County residents’ drinking water.
Kewaunee County and its neighbors have a serious groundwater contamination problem. People are getting sick, and not just with a 24-hour bout of food poisoning. The pathogens found in residents’ wells can be life-threatening, especially for young children and the elderly.
We’ve all known about Kewaunee’s drinking water crisis for a long time; the newest research only confirms the risks residents have long faced while illuminating a more widespread and serious problem. A recent study not only found that wells in areas of greater soil depth were being contaminated with dangerous pathogens, but that up to 60 percent of wells tested were affected, nearly doubling the tally from previous studies. And researchers think these numbers only hint at the actual levels of contamination that exist in Kewaunee County.
“In my professional opinion, if we sampled more than once, (the contamination rate) would creep up to 90 percent,” noted Mark Borchardt, microbiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who led the most recent study.
In 2014, Clean Wisconsin, along with Midwest Environmental Advocates and local citizens, filed a Safe Drinking Water Act petition with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency asking for help for Kewaunee County residents. While some steps to provide drinking water for residents with contaminated wells have been taken, too little action has occurred to address the root of the problem.
Kewaunee County’s geology makes it vulnerable to groundwater contamination from manure spreading on the landscape. With about 98,000 cows producing 700 million gallons of manure a year, a lot of untreated animal waste is being spread on Kewaunee County fields. And some of it is ending up in people's drinking water.
Kewaunee County residents deserve a robust and thorough effort from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to address drinking water contamination. For much of the past year, the DNR has pointed to a new set of protections being drafted as their effort to address drinking water contamination from livestock manure. Those rules dealing with manure runoff management, called NR 151, are due to be released soon, and they can’t come soon enough.
Access to clean, safe drinking water is every Wisconsin citizens’ right. For too long, too many citizens in Kewaunee County and elsewhere in the state have been denied that right. Through these protections, we think the DNR can reduce the risk of drinking water contamination by:
- Putting limits on when, where and how manure can be spread.
- Limiting how much manure can be spread at a given time, especially when the risk of groundwater contamination is high.
- Requiring all farms to change their manure application practices to better protect citizens’ drinking water.
By writing strong rules, the DNR can help citizens with contaminated drinking water have safe wells that draw clean water while giving farmers the tools to effectively manage their livestock byproduct. We’ll be watching this rule-making process very closely and hope it provides the necessary tools to start making citizens’ water safe to drink again.
Redsten is president and CEO of Clean Wisconsin, which works to preserve and protect the state’s air, water and natural heritage.