Monday, January 14, 2019

Rural Wisconsin water becomes undrinkable. And their reps let it happen

It's bad enough that Wisconsin is losing dairy farms at an alarming level, but there's a second major threat that's apparent to rural Wisconsin -the megafarms that remain, which continue to cause problems for local drinking water.

This was shown again in a new lawsuit in Central Wisconsin that wants to hold a mega-farm to account for the spoiling of their drinking water over several years.
A civil case listing 81 plaintiffs, all of whom own property in Juneau County, accuses the company of knowingly contaminating groundwater and private well systems and endangering neighbors for at least a decade without warning them.

The lawsuit asks for a Juneau County judge to order the Wysocki Produce Farms and Central Sands Dairy to stop contaminating groundwater, provide drinkable water and a source-based water purification system for homes that need them, pay for ongoing medical monitoring of people affected by the contaminated water and pay for the money lost by property owners because of missed work and reduced property values….

The new lawsuit says Wysocki Produce Farms and Central Sands Dairy's handing of manure — its storage, spreading and disposal, along with the application of fertilizer — is responsible for groundwater contamination. The company contaminated the aquifer that supplies water to the the contaminated wells, according to the court documents.

Before getting a permit from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the company told residents its cropping practices would improve the quality of the soil and water in the Central Sands region of Wisconsin, according to the documents. Wysocki representatives said a manure digester would keep the farm's effect in the neighborhood small, and the smell would be minimal.

At least two properties became uninhabitable because of manure spraying, swarming flies and the infiltration of ammonia odor into the walls of the homes, according to court documents. The dairy bought the properties, the complaint said.

Pristine rural Wisconsin?

This is where I remind you that Juneau County is “represented” by Republicans like State Sen. Howard Marklein who have taken funding from Big Ag groups like the Dairy Business Association, and voted for numerous measures deregulating megafarms, wetland protection, and weakening the DNR’s runoff oversight.

Which makes it remarkable that Juneau County gave Marklein more than 60% of their votes in his tight Senate race this November, and 58% of their votes to Big Ag-supported Tony Kurtz for Assembly. And Juneau County shifted more towards voting for Republican Scott Walker than almost any other county in Wisconsin from the 2014 to 2018 elections.

Did they vote for undrinkable water and uninhabitable land? Because this type of Big Ag pollution will continue as a result of those votes, particularly Marklein, given his position on the Joint Finance Committee.

CAFOs like Wysocki's were largely given a free ride from Walker's Administration over the last 8 years. But now that Walker's gone from the Capitol, Stevens Point’s Bill Berry says the new Evers Administration offers an opportunity to reverse this trend of declining rural water quality.
While we’re at it, Wisconsin should also beef up its action levels for requiring conservation practices. Minnesota, for instance, requires that farm operations close to municipal wellhead areas take steps to remedy contamination once nitrate levels rise to 5 parts per million in water, half of the federal standard. The program is designed to protect wellhead areas before nitrates and other contaminants reach levels that force municipalities to fund costly treatment options. Let’s remember, too, that contamination of residential wells violates the private property rights of homeowners.

Some will cry “regulation” if our rules are toughened. So be it. Maybe the old standards, or lack of them, worked in another era. But modern agriculture has changed the playing field. In total, Wisconsin farmers are applying more fertilizer and manure these days. Soil erosion has increased, reversing earlier progress. When soil erodes, it carries nutrients and chemicals on its way to ground or surface water.

While we’re at it, Wisconsin should establish a stewardship certification program for farmers, allowing them to be recognized and rewarded for their efforts. Once again, our neighbor to the west may provide a worthy model with its Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program. Farmers who meet the program’s standards by voluntarily enhancing stewardship practices are recognized as stewards and are guaranteed some measure of regulatory certainty. Nearly 700 farm operations have achieved this status in the four years the program has been in place, and many others are on their way.

A new clean water fund paired with a stewardship certification program would benefit everyone, ushering in a new era of clean water for all.
And today, Berry got some of what he was looking for in a bill proposed by his own State Rep., Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point).
This bill requires the Department of Natural Resources to administer a program to provide grants to counties, cities, villages, towns, and American Indian tribes and bands (local units of government) for the testing of privately owned wells.

The bill also makes changes to the well compensation grant program currently administered by DNR. The bill provides that local units of government may apply for grants once in a fiscal biennium for testing privately owned wells, with an option for a second grant if adequate funding is available. A local unit of government must provide matching funds equal to the amount of the grant and must provide test results to DNR within three months of conducting testing. DNR is required to award grants equitably across the state, giving priority to regions where a significant number of private wells contain nitrate contamination above specified levels and regions where a significant number of wells contain coliform bacteria or other contaminants at a level that exceeds applicable standards for public health.

Under current law, an individual owner or renter of a contaminated private well may apply for a grant from DNR to cover a portion of the costs to treat the water, reconstruct the well, construct a new well, connect to a public water supply, or fill and seal the well. To be eligible for a grant, the well owner or renter's annual family income may not exceed $65,000. In addition, if the well owner or renter's annual family income exceeds $45,000, the amount of the award is reduced by 30 percent of the amount by which the annual family income exceeds $45,000. The bill increases the family income limit to $100,000 and increases the amount of annual family income that triggers a reduction of an award to $65,000.

Under current law, a well that is contaminated only by nitrates is eligible for a grant only if the well is a water supply for livestock, is used at least three months in each year, and contains nitrates in excess of 40 parts per million. The bill eliminates these requirements and requires DNR to prioritize grants for wells with nitrate contamination above specified levels.
It is evident that Republicans are in danger of finally being held to account for their negligence of rural water quality, because Assembly Speaker Robbin' Vos (R-Foxconn) felt he had to call a task force on the matter earlier this month, after similar tainted well water was found in Southwestern Wisconsin (also in Marklein's district).

This is another classic example of Republican two-stepping, where they claim to be the party that's in touch with rural Wisconsin, while voting to allow actions that degrade rural Wisconsin. Maybe it'll take a new Wisconsin governor from "liberal Madison" to be the one to work to improve drinking water for people whose local "representatives" have chosen big money corporate donations over helping the constituents that voted them into power.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent piece! Great reporting. Shrewd analysis. Of note: Last year Marklein spent almost $1 million to get re-elected. Twice as much as Fitzgerald! Three,four, five times most others. Question: Where did all that loot come from? Lots of farmers and other ag donors, yes. A few hundred here, a few hundred there. But still . . . Dark money is hard to see. Wisconsin tests drinking water for everything from atrazine to zinc. Why not glyphosates, as in Round Up? We all know manure and fertilizers are big water-pollution problems. Why aren't we talking about glyphosates. Identified by reputable groups and scientists as a carcinogen, it's still under the radar here. Does Marklein wantto talk about it? Does Monsanto want him to?