The false choice between agriculture and clean water

Nick Levendofsky

In a state as abundant in water as Wisconsin, it’s easy to take for granted the rich groundwater resources running below our feet. Our Great Lakes contain 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water, and there is more than enough water available for drinking, recreation, wildlife, and business. However, growing concerns over the public health and ecological impacts of agricultural and industrial pollutants in our water mean we must reevaluate how we manage water resources in Wisconsin.

Unfortunately, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) recently announced it is abandoning efforts to develop regulations that would reduce nitrate pollution in drinking water, claiming “the statutory process and associated firm timelines established by the Legislature for rule-making do not allow adequate time for the department to complete this proposed rule.”

In 2020, Wisconsin Farmers Union (WFU) participated in a series of NR-151 Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) meetings to address the issue in a way that took agricultural, environmental, and public health concerns into consideration.

Although certainly not the sole factor, we must acknowledge that agricultural runoff is a contributor to water pollution in this state. Many farmers are aware of this fact and are actively working to address it through improved conservation practices and collaborative educational efforts, such as farmer-led watershed councils. WFU recognizes a need to safeguard our resources against bad actors Wisconsin has over 1,500 impaired waterways, and many private wells in Wisconsin do not meet safe drinking water standards due to excess bacteria or nitrates. Excess nutrients in surface water cause toxic algae blooms, which threaten humans and wildlife and destroy the tourism and recreation industries.

Rick Adamski

Seymour farmer and WFU Vice President Rick Adamski served on the NR-151 advisory committee and responded to the DNR’s abandonment of the rule with the following statement, “If we continue to do what we have always done and expect different results, we are doomed to fail. We must realize the place where we are today is due to actions of the past. Nitrogen fertilizers reduce the organic matter content in the soil, which in turn increases the need for more fertilizer. The rising price for these fertilizers is inevitable, and the concentration of ownership of these fertilizer manufacturers allows no limit to the price increases. The best possible future for farmers rests with strategies to reduce this dependency.”

WFU’s member-driven, grassroots policy aligns closely with the work and recommendations of the TAC. Our members support efforts to preserve the quality of all waters in Wisconsin. Furthermore, we support changes to NR-151 that will restrict manure and other waste application rates and the spreading of these materials on frozen soils in areas of the state deemed to be sensitive. These sensitive areas would include places with shallow soil depth above Karst bedrock, areas with sandy soils, or those where groundwater quality standards are not being met.

For too long, we have been presented with a false choice between agriculture and clean water. WFU believes it is possible to have clean water, thriving family farms, and vibrant rural economies, and that farmers can be champions in this effort for ourselves, our environment, and future generations. We challenge the Wisconsin Legislature, Governor Evers’ administration, and all who care about water quality in this state to follow the recommendations set forth by the advisory committee and to recommit to protecting water for the future.

Nick Levendofsky

Levendofsky is the Government Relations Director for Wisconsin Farmers Union.