by Jim McKnight
Last month, I reported on a new independent groundwater flow analysis by Andrew Aslesen from the Wisconsin Rural Water Association that supported a previous study linking high nitrates in Nelsonville wells to agricultural land use in areas surrounding the Village. That 2019 study by groundwater expert Pete Arnsten concluded that the impact of septic systems and lawn fertilizers on nitrates in drinking water was minimal.
On July 7, activists and Nelsonville residents brought that new study information to the County committee charged with maintaining groundwater quality and agricultural standards, LAWCONN (Land and Water Conservation).
Documented as well were nitrogen applications on specific fields within the groundwater recharge areas that ultimately provide water to Village wells after two to 10 years travel time.
For years, despite State Statute 92 that requires LAWCONN to protect groundwater and provides enforcement powers to regulate manure and fertilizer application when water quality is threatened, this Committee has blocked action despite repeated evidence of countywide nitrate problems. A 2017 Portage County Groundwater Study summarized 20 years of well test research and irrefutable evidence that agriculture was the principle component of nitrates in groundwater and identified hotspots within the County. (www.uwsp.edu/cnr-ap/watershed/Documents/PortageCountyGroundwater_2017.pdf)
The 2019 Nelsonville study evidence was even more precise because of the number of samples, multiple series of tests, and the understanding of groundwater flows in the area from years of hydrology research by State, Federal, and UW-Stevens Point scientists.
Observers began to conclude that the issue was not a lack of solid evidence but bias of committee members and county staff against action that would threaten agricultural operations.
Any doubts of this bias were removed at the last LAWCONN meeting on July 7. Nelsonville residents, groundwater scientists, citizens, and the farm operator attempted to once again engage the committee in a meaningful discussion and present the new groundwater flow study information for Nelsonville. Instead of civil conversation, the chairman berated residents for seeking redress for polluted wells and criticizing farm operations. In one particular example, a resident with a well on the edge of the Village, with clearly no septic systems in the path of groundwater flow to his well, was told by the chairman that septic systems were the culprit for the dangerous nitrates in his well, not agriculture.
Yet, just months earlier, the chairman had been in attendance at a presentation of the 2019 study science that concluded septic sources were not a factor in Nelsonville well pollution.
At that meeting, he aggressively questioned the groundwater scientist, and was told repeatedly that those findings were collaborated by exhaustive data and confirmed by other groundwater scientists involved in the study summary. Despite this exchange, and without the production of evidence, the chairman continued to propagate this fiction at the July 7 meeting.
Septic systems have been debunked in other studies. UW-Stevens Point researchers estimate a septic system produces a nitrate load entering groundwater of 10 pounds per person per year. By contrast, an acre of corn allows 85 pounds per acre to infiltrate groundwater (at 150 pounds per acre standard applications). The entire population of Nelsonville, 155 persons spread over 672 acres, creates the same nitrate footprint as 18 acres of corn.
Recently, new information revealed even more troubling behavior and bias by the chair of LAWCONN. In 2018, Portage County staff and private groundwater experts recommended to DNR officials that monitoring wells to track groundwater pollution be considered in renewing the Nelsonville CAFO operating permit. Despite having no legal authority, and without knowledge of other LAWCONN committee members, the chairman called DNR permit officials personally, telling them to ignore staff recommendations and approve the permit.
Despite these setbacks, activists say they will continue to focus on LAWCONN and other County committees, working within the system and relying on increasing public awareness and pressure to restore fairness to decision making on groundwater health. They stress that the problem is not misconduct by farm operators, but current standards for nitrogen application that allow too much nitrogen to be spread on sandy soils of Portage County and do not adequately protect groundwater. New methods must be adapted with these criteria in mind. Rather than halting that discussion, innovation must be the new LAWCONN mantra.