Groundwater Discussions in Portage County and Beyond Continue

A standing room only crowd filled the largest conference room and overflowed into hallways at the County Annex when the Portage County Groundwater Citizens Advisory (GCAC) subcommittee met Thursday Feb 23 to begin work on a Portage County healthy groundwater protection ordinance.

The subcommittee began its work by reviewing an ordinance proposal written by a group from the Town of New Hope based on a similar ordinance written in Kewaunee County to control high nitrate and bacteria levels in water supplies there. The Kewaunee ordinance was a joint effort of farmers, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to develop practical agricultural alternatives for spreading waste that would protect groundwater supplies. It had been adopted after a full review by a Federal Court found that the state has the responsibility to protect healthy groundwater and that individual counties can proceed on that authority with local ordinances.

The soil types in Kewaunee are distinct porous limestone, but the New Hope Township recommendations were re-written with the help of several geo-hydrologists to reflect the sand and gravel that makes up most of Portage County. Nitrates, pesticides, and municipal wastes were the main focus of the proposed New Hope ordinance, but organizers stressed that this template is only a working document and should include any other significant groundwater health problems the GCAC subcommittee may identify. They also made it clear that, as written, townships would be able to vote to adopt the ordinance, making it easier to adjust for different soil types in the County like clays found in townships west of the Wisconsin River.

A brief discussion with committee and community members explained how the ordinance proposal meshed with the recent GCAC committee report, which after eight years of exhaustive study, had documented some of the same groundwater problems that concerned New Hope residents. (Full study at: http://www.co.portage.wi.us/home/showdocument?id=7093)

That study cited the 2016 USGS report that confirmed other studies showing county nitrate levels were above state average, sandy soil types were especially prone to rapid movement of nitrates and pesticides into groundwater and 90% of nitrates were agricultural in origin; the remaining 10% municipal, industrial and private sources. Also cited were recent Wisconsin Department of Health studies confirming that negative health effects can occur at nitrate levels as low as 2mg/L, an alarming statistic, given that 19% of Portage County wells tested above the old 10 mg/L standard for immediate ending of use from that particular well.

A series of questions from committee members and citizens seeking information on present methods for monitoring agricultural waste spreading led to a lot of pointed questions aimed at Steve Bradley (County Land and Water Conservation Agent) and Ken Shroeder (County agriculture extension agent).

When they confirmed that Portage County farmers as a group have low participation rates in nutrient management plans (NMP), and that the county has absolutely no idea if those that do participate in the program, actually follow the plans because of a lack of monitoring, there was an audible gasp in the room.

When it was further revealed that the NMPs focus solely on nitrogen input to maximize profit margins for farmers and have nothing to do with how nutrients are handled on specific soil types to help maintain groundwater quality, Shroeder responded that farmers were acutely aware of problems and worked hard to provide good land stewardship. He cited ongoing examples of research on multi-crop plantings on individual fields and promoting cover crops to better absorb nitrates and prevent them reaching groundwater. Several audience members responded that, like Kewaunee County, the problem in Portage County is beyond small efforts and a comprehensive ordinance that focuses on all water users should be part of the solution to realistically reduce nitrates, pesticides, and municipal sludge that threaten healthy groundwater.

The subcommittee’s next meeting for ordinance work is tentatively scheduled to take place March 30, check the Portage County website to confirm date, time and room (www.co.portage.wi.us/). Meanwhile, the 2017 GCAC committee management plan identifying groundwater problems (see full study reference above), continues to work its way through three committees on its way to the full board. (Agriculture and Extension Committee, Land and Water Conservation Committee, and Planning and Zoning Committee- schedules also available at www.co.portage.wi.us/)

In other local groundwater news, the City of Stevens Point is exploring the financial outlook of further processing waste solids to produce dry matter suitable for garden application that can be sold, similar to Milorganite produced by the City of Milwaukee. Also, organizers in New Hope and other townships report trying to set up community discussion forums in the near future where all neighbors can brainstorm possible approaches that could be implemented in an ordinance successfully.

In Madison, where all decisions on Wisconsin rules for high capacity well permits are controlled by legislative purview, Senate Majority Scott Fitzgerald has proposed legislation (Senate Bill 76), co-sponsored by 14 other Republican senators, that is similar to the bill he proposed last year. The bill allows transfer of high capacity well permits without review, creates a designated study area for high cap wells but limits the DNR to only recommending use changes from that study, allows pumping from wells to restore lake levels and prohibits challenges to any DNR high capacity well permit enforcement rules in the courts. Activists point out that this bill again delays any meaningful action and has many flaws, including reinforcing the provision that the DNR is not allowed to consider the cumulative effect of high capacity wells in a given area. They point out that this runs counter to numerous scientific studies including a comprehensive 2016 USGS Little Plover River Study and a unanimous Wisconsin Supreme Court decision in 2011, that this cumulative approach is critical to preserving water resources. The Wisconsin Attorney General has since ruled that the legislature had removed this power from the DNR through legislation.

Alternative bills sponsored by Democratic representative Corey Mason (AB 50) and Senator Miller (SB 22) embrace the cumulative effects approach when issuing high capacity well permits and follows closely the recommendations for action outlined in the Little Plover River Study for preserving groundwater.

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