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Speaker’s Water Quality Task Force holds first meeting in Lancaster
Water Quality Task Force meeting crowd
A PACKED HOUSE was on hand in the morning at the Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality public hearing in Lancaster on Wednesday, May 8. Citizen input at the hearing did not start until after 2 p.m., and by that time more than half the chairs were empty. - photo by GILLIAN POMPLUN

LANCASTER - More than 150 people attended the first public hearing by the Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality, held in Lancaster on Wednesday, May 8. There were 16 legislators there from both sides of the aisle who make up the bipartisan group. Local legislators present included Representative Todd Novak (R-Dodgeville), who co-chairs the task force with Representative Kristina Shankland (D-Stevens Point), Representative Travis Tranel (R-Cuba City), and Senator Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green).

Representative Todd Novak
REPRESENTATIVE TODD NOVAK, Chair of the Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality, spoke at the opening of the public hearing held in Lancaster on Wednesday, May 8. - photo by GILLIAN POMPLUN

The large room in the UW-Extension Youth and Ag Building at the Grant County Fairgrounds was filled with citizens, agriculture and conservation organizations, water quality experts, legislators and county conservationists from Grant, Iowa, Lafayette, Richland and Crawford counties. Citizens spent long, but educational, hours listening to expert testimony, awaiting their own chance to speak. By the time citizens had the chance to speak late in the afternoon, over half of the seats that were filled in the morning were empty. 

Representative Travis Tranel was one of the first legislators to respond. His comments came after the panel of county conservationists, and water quality and hydrogeology experts, responsible for the Southwest Wisconsin Groundwater and Geology Survey (SWIGG) had provided testimony to the panel of legislators about the study, and about how the State of Wisconsin could assist with its’ completion.

SWIGG STUDY team mem-bers spoke to the panel of 16 legislators at the Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality public hearing in Lancaster on Wednesday, May 8. The speakers, from left, included Iowa County Conservationist Katie Abbott, Lafayette County Conservationist Terry Loeffelholz, Joel Stokdyk of USDA ARS, State Geologist Kenneth Bradbury, and Grant County Conservationist Lynda Schweikert. - photo by GILLIAN POMPLUN
“The funds available in the county, mainly from State of Wisconsin Land and Water Resource Management (LWRM) grant funds are insufficient for cost share to complete the study or to obtain other funding for installation of needed conservation practices. We’re ready to do more, and we need good data to point us to where the best places to focus our resources is.”
Iowa County Conservationist Katie Abbott

It was the release of the well testing results from round one of the SWIGG Study that prompted Republican Speaker of the Assembly Robin Vos to found the task force. Those results revealed that 42 percent of sampled wells were contaminated with nitrate or coliform bacteria.

Joel Stokdyk, one of two principal investigators with the SWIGG Study (and also a similar study in Kewaunee County), reported that historic sampling in Iowa County in 1987 had shown about 30 percent of the wells to have signs of contamination. Representative Tranel stated that compared to 1987, there are many fewer dairy farms in the three counties, and thus, much less manure spreading going on. He queried Stokdyk about what he thought the end results of the SWIGG Study would likely be.

“My best guess is that the SWIGG Study, once completed, will probably show similar results to the historic results for Iowa County,” Stokdyk replied. “However, the historic results in Iowa County weren’t as scientifically rigorous as the SWIGG Study, and the best comparison to look for that was equally scientifically rigorous would be the recent study I led of groundwater problems in Kewaunee County.”

Sky is not falling

Tranel seemed relieved to find that the investigator thought the results might show 30 percent contamination instead of 42 percent.

“Well, at least we know the sky is not falling,” Tranel said. “If 30 percent of wells in the three-county area are contaminated, that’s bad and we have to fix it, but if the results are similar to the 1987 results in Iowa County, then it’s even possible that things may be improving.”

Of course the ‘Sky is Falling’ reference is to the well-known children’s tale of ‘Chicken Little.’ In one view, use of this metaphor could be seen as diminishing the concerns expressed by citizens that there is a real problem facing the community. In another view, it could be seen as a way to calm a potentially panicking populace.

The very last citizen to testify at the hearing was Beverly Pestel of Richland Center. Pestel, a retired chemistry professor, is part of Richland Stewardship Project, a group of Richland County citizens working to educate their neighbors about well water quality and local control. 

“Just last weekend, Representative Tranel, our group held a Water Quality Education Forum in Gotham. At that meeting, I spoke with a woman whose well testing results had come back with high nitrates. I had to advise her that, based upon the results, her well water was not safe to drink,” Pestel said. “Representative Tranel, that woman’s sky has already fallen.”

Grateful for hearing

The three county conservationists instrumental in the SWIGG Study spoke about the issues facing them, and county Land Conservation Department’s throughout the state. Grant County Conservationist Lynda Schweikert, Iowa County Conservationist Katie Abbott, and Lafayette County Conservationist Terry Loeffelholz, were part of a group speaking to the legislators and citizens present about the SWIGG Study. 

Crawford County Conservationist Dave Troester, and Richland County Board Supervisor and Land and Water Conservation Committee member Melissa Luck both attended the meeting. Due to the citizen input section being so late on the agenda, both left before having a chance to testify. The two are currently in talks with Vernon County Conservationist Ben Wojahn about implementing a similar study in Crawford, Richland and Vernon counties.

The three conservationists involved in the SWIGG Study were joined by Ken Bradbury, Wisconsin State Geologist and Director of the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, and Joel Stokdyk with the Laboratory for Infectious Disease and the Environment with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Bradbury is leading the part of the SWIGG Study looking at the underlying karst hydrogeology of the three counties, as well as historical information about well construction for the wells tested in the study. Stokdyk is leading the part of the study involved with analyzing the results of the well water testing.

“We were very thankful for the public hearing and that the task force thought the SWIGG study results might be worth investigating,” Grant County Conservationist Lynda Schweikert said. “We got a very good turnout at the hearing, and we certainly hope for support from the legislators on the Task Force to ensure that we can complete our study.”

All three conservationists emphasized that their counties and departments need more funding than is currently available. The funds are needed both to complete the study, and generally, to do all the work that is the responsibility of the ‘boots-in-the-field’ county Land and Water Conservation Departments.

“The funds available in the county, mainly from State of Wisconsin Land and Water Resource Management (LWRM) grant funds are insufficient for cost share to complete the study or to obtain other funding for installation of needed conservation practices,” Iowa County Conservationist Katie Abbott told the panel. “We’re ready to do more, and we need good data to point us to where the best places to focus our resources is.”

Abbott explained that if the study is completed, it will likely lead to changes in well construction codes, septic system construction codes, manure management rules, incentivizing nitrogen best management practices, and generally in incorporation of groundwater considerations into land use planning and zoning decisions.

Representative Kristina Shankland, co-chair of the task force, queried the conservationists about what barriers they saw in current state law.

“We are likely going to need legislative support for changes in well and septic construction codes,” Grant County’s Schweikert said. “One problem we at the county level face is that the State Department of Licensing staff are not in the field much,” Lafayette County’s Loeffelholz said. “There is not enough funding available for the counties to implement the NR 151 manure handling rule or to implement zoning regulations,” Iowa County’s Abbott finished. 

Large farmers speak

The vast majority of time allotted at the hearing was given to representatives of larger farm operations and University of Wisconsin system researchers to speak to the panel and citizens present.

Members of the Lafayette Agricultural Stewardship Alliance (LASA) were the first to be given audience. The group of farmers is funded through DATCP Producer-Led Watershed Council grant funds, and also private funds from the Nature Conservancy (NC). In 2018, the group used the $10,000 granted by NC to make up the shortfall in paying for Lafayette County’s share of the SWIGG Study costs.

“We all want clean water for our farms and for the community, and to achieve it, it will have to be a community effort,” Winn said. “A big part of our group’s efforts in 2019 will be incentivizing farmers to install best management practices in their farm operations.”
LASA farmer-member Jim Winn

LASA farmer and president Jim Winn expressed his point of view about the SWIGG Study and water quality.

“We all want clean water for our farms and for the community, and to achieve it, it will have to be a community effort,” Winn said. “A big part of our group’s efforts in 2019 will be incentivizing farmers to install best management practices in their farm operations.”

Crawford County CAFO hog farmer and president-elect of the National Pork Council AV Roth, along with Dane County pork producer and Yahara Pride Farms farmer-led watershed council member Bob Uphoff spoke to the task force about hog production.

AV Roth and Bob Uphoff
PORK PRODUCERS AV Roth of Crawford Coun-ty, president-elect of the National Pork Producers Council, and Bob Uphoff of the Yahara Pride Farms watershed council of Dane County, spoke to the task force about issues pork producers face. - photo by GILLIAN POMPLUN

“Grant County is one of the top-ten counties nationwide for pork production,” Roth told the board. “Hog production facilities have really evolved over the years to have much better manure management facilities. However, the fact is it costs a Wisconsin hog producer $5 more to butcher a pig versus an Iowa producer because we don’t have processing facilities which drives the cost of transportation up.”

Roth’s farm operation is located in the Town of Wauzeka, Crawford County, in the Boydtown Creek Watershed. In the citizen testimony portion of the agenda later in the meeting, Crawford County resident Mary Sterling spoke about water quality concerns in that watershed.

“Crawford Stewardship Project has undertaken regular surface water quality monitoring of Boydtown Creek,” Sterling explained. “In 2018 monitoring, May through September, the only month that monitoring results met EPA standards for E.coli in surface water (235 colony forming units per 100 milliliters – cfu/mL) was in July, and in September, there was a reading taken of 82,000 cfu/mL.”

In addition UW-Platteville Pioneer Farms and UW-Discovery Farms shared information about current and past research. In response to a question by Representative Shankland about cuts in funding levels, it was revealed that funding for research at the Platteville research facility had been cut from $300,000 per year and six full-time employees to $5,000 per year and one-and-one half full-time employees through State of Wisconsin General Purpose Revenue channels.

Citizens speak

At the end of a long day, with no lunch break for the citizens sitting long hours on hard metal chairs, finally it was time for them to have the opportunity to speak to their elected representatives about their concerns with groundwater quality.

• Dennis Busch from UW-Platteville talked about the idea for a ‘Fresh Water Initiative,’ which would involve all the UW-System campuses in some form of water research.

• Mike Lieurance, Grant County Board Supervisor, emphasized the need for increases in State Land Water Resource Management funding to support counties in their ‘boots-in-the-field’ responsibilities.

• Kriss Marion, Lafayette County Board Supervisor, suggested that groundwater mapping be included in the data set in SNAP Plus, a tool that farmers use to plan nutrient management on their farms. She also stated that she supported Representative Tranel’s grazing proposal.

“We can’t drill, filter or volunteer our way out of this crisis,” Marion said. “First we need the science and data, and then we need to translate that into policy.”

• Jim Haas, a Trout Unlimited member who lives near Lake Yellowstone stated that “trout are the canaries in the coal mine.” His group has been involved in stream restoration efforts in Grant County.

• Michelle Robertson from Lafayette County stated that “everyone has a right to clean water,” and “self-regulation in many industries, like agriculture, just hasn’t worked.”

• Forest Jahnke of Crawford Stewardship Project talked about the work their group has done to map the sinkholes in Crawford County, and also about a recent round of well water testing.
Forest Jahnke
FOREST JAHNKE of the Crawford Stewardship Project addressed the task force about water quality issues facing Crawford County and priorities for funding in the upcoming biennial state budget. Crawford County Conservationist Dave Troester is still in the audience, by this time surrounded by mostly empty chairs. Troester had to leave before being called to testify. - photo by GILLIAN POMPLUN

“Unlike Kewaunee County, our aquifers here in Southwest Wisconsin are sandstone aquifers. They are much older, and deeper than the ones on the eastern side of the state, and once polluted are essentially polluted forever,” Jahnke told the panel. “In Crawford County, we are working with Richland and Vernon counties to put together a well testing effort similar to the SWIGG Study.”

Jahnke advocated for funding the five full-time DNR staff positions proposed in Governor Evers’ budget, full funding for administration and enforcement of WPDES permits, funding for well water testing, increased funding for the Wisconsin Environmental Health Tracking system and for the Center for Watershed Science and Education (CWSE) at UW-Stevens Point, and increased funding for the DATCP Producer-Led Watershed program. Jahnke also advocated for enabling CWSE to consolidate all of the state’s well water testing results data bases in one central location.

• Edie Ehlert from Crawford County spoke about the state’s ‘one-size-fits-all’ Livestock Facility Siting law.

“As Dr. Bryon Shaw said when expressing opposition to the passage of the law during Governor Jim Doyle’s term, it will be too much manure on too little land,” Ehlert said. “The law is required to be reviewed every four years, and none of the recommended changes have been adopted.”

Ehlert advocated that all karstic areas in Wisconsin be designated as ‘Sensitive Areas’ under state manure management rules; to increase WPDES permit fees to help pay for administration and clean up after spills or contamination; and to support initiatives to increase grazing.

• Donna Swanson, with Grant County Rural Stewardship stated that she lives one-half mile from a dairy CAFO with 2,000 cows.

“Representative Tranel, I like to eat food, but I also like to drink water,” Swanson said. “I don’t think I should have to choose between the two.”

• Charles Horn from Grant County, a retired DNR employee and a member of many conservation groups including Trout Unlimited, talked about how a CAFO near him had spilled 150,000 gallons of manure into Castle Rock Creek in February of 2016.

“The manure flowed across my land and into Castle Rock Creek,” Horn told the panel. “Now, hardly anyone fishes there anymore, and the nitrates in my well water have gone from three parts-per-million (ppm) to 20 ppm.”

Horn went on to explain that his wife, with no family history of cancer, had died of brain cancer in 2013. Further, he stated, in the area surrounding the spill there is, he says, a cluster of cancers among his neighbors as well.

“What I want to see from the legislature is more stringent WPDES standards, manure spreading restrictions, bonding of CAFO facilities for clean up, and adequate staffing of the State’s regulatory agencies,” Horn said.

• Mark LaBarbera of Hazel Geen, with the Wisconsin Wildlife, Federation made five demands: the current NR 151 manure management standards need to be fully implemented and enforced; County Land and Water Conservation departments need to be fully funded; there needs to be greater funding for farmers to implement best management practices; when the funding is disbursed, then we need DNR and county staff to verify implementation; and we need to conduct a study to determine if the current nutrient management standards are sufficient to achieve the goals of the U.S. Clean Water Act.

• Andy Buttles, a Lancaster area farmer, reported that he and 30 other farmers had had a meeting the week before in the very same room to kick off a Grant County Farmer-Led Watershed Group.

“Farmers like to learn from other farmers, and we need whole farm conservation plans,” Buttles said. “Everyone wants the same thing – clean water – and we need to collaborate and pool our resources.”

• Matt Schaefer expressed to the panel that he considers farming to be “the best occupation.” He advocated for improving impaired bodies of water; incentivizing farmers to implement best management practices; fully funding Land and Water Resource Management; restoration of funding for grazing; and implementing a fund for the marketing of pasture-raised meats.

• Jane Ferch from Lone Rock expressed support for full funding of Land and Water Resource Management, and emphasized the need to protect and restore wetlands.

• Connie Champnoise of the Richland Stewardship Project reported on her county’s efforts to work with Crawford and Vernon counties to implement a well water testing collaboration similar to the SWIGG Study.

“I would like to see the legislature fund our study like they are funding the SWIGG Study, and to map the soils in all the karstic areas of the state,” Champnoise said. “I would like to see you fully fund Land and Water Resource Management, CWSE, increase funding for the DATCP Producer-Led Watershed Councils, and I’d like you to designate Southwest Wisconsin as a Sensitive Area.”

• Mary Kay Baum from Ridgeway told the panel that preserving biodiversity is important, especially in a time of climate crisis.

“I’d also like to see the legislature focus on municipalities with aging water treatment infrastructure,” Baum said. “With all the flooding in overdeveloped places like Madison, with the increase in impervious surfaces that increase flooding, I think we need to focus on restoring wetlands and look at relocating urban residents to smaller, dying rural communities like Ridgeway.”

• Shannon Wolf is a CAFO producer in the Lancaster area.

“Small farmers engage in the kind of harmful practices that CAFOs can’t,” Wolf stated. “CAFO’s have a bullseye on their back.”

• Todd Timmerman, a solar installation business owner from the Platteville area, talked about his families experience with a damaged well cover and his children suffering from cryptosporidium.

“The well construction code should require a frost expansion heading,” Timmerman said. “When you get frost heave, the well heads crack, and the solution is to require installation of these relatively inexpensive devices to prevent other families from suffering like mine has.”

• Angie Mitchell is a citizen of Grant County, and she thanked Grant County Conservationist Lynda Schweikert for spearheading the SWIGG Study.

“Water quality is a public health issue,” Mitchell said. “The sky IS falling, with 900 contaminated wells in Grant County.”

• Laura Daniel is a farmer in Iowa County, and a member of the Iowa County and State of Wisconsin Farm Bureau.

“I believe farmers ARE the solution to the water quality problems we have, and one of the most important things is for farmers to develop comprehensive nutrient management plans,” Daniels said. “We need you to fully fund Land and Water Resource Management and their ability to implement and oversee nutrient management plans. It’s hard to “think green” when your business is “in the red,” and what we need is innovation funding or matching grants.”

• Derek Orth, a dairy farmer from north of Lancaster, stated that his family had retained their contour strips, terraces and grassed waterways on their farm, and was experimenting with cover crops.

• TJ Rolff said that he is a corn/beans/alfalfa farmer, and that he believes that cover crops and increased grazing are going to be a part of the solution.