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Is the Driftless a 'Sensitive Area?'
THE RAGING GRANNIES performed a captivating selection of songs about social and environmental justice at a Water Issues event put on by the Alicia Leinberger for State Assembly campaign and the Vernon County Democrats. Speakers at the event included Gretchen Benjamin, from the Board of the Mississippi Valley Conservancy and Amber Meyer-Smith, from Clean Wisconsin (shown seated to the far left), and the Raging Grannies. The Raging Grannies of Madison began as a project of the Madison chapter of the Womens International League for Peace and Freedom.

In August of 2015, in response to a crisis of ground and surface water contamination in Kewaunee County, the DNR created a Groundwater Collaboration Workgroup. The group was tasked with defining sensitive areas that are high risk for groundwater pollution. To that end, the group recommended management practices to help reduce or eliminate that water pollution and its associated health risks.

The work group was composed of a diverse mix of members drawn from agriculture, environmental groups, government agencies and others in Kewaunee and Door counties.

The workgroup divided into four smaller workgroups and met from August through December of 2015. Ultimately, the group formulated a report for presentation in June of 2016 to the Wisconsin Natural Resource Board.

Workgroup results

The central point addressed by the workgroup is that standards for agricultural nonpoint-source pollution are not sufficient to achieve groundwater or surface water safety in some areas of the state.

The workgroup concluded that, “groundwater and surface water standards will not be attained by simply implementing the statewide performance standards and prohibitions in sensitive areas (of karst geology with shallow soils) and that targeted performance standards are necessary to attain groundwater and surface water standards.”

For this reason, the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board decided at their June 2016 meeting that the DNR should write proposed permanent revisions to the state’s administrative code NR 151. The board also advised the DNR to make related changes to NR 243 (relating to runoff management and nonpoint-source performance standards and Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations).

In addition, the board asked the workgroup to identify the “sensitive areas,” where the new rules would apply.

On July 13, 2016, Governor Scott Walker sent a letter to Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Secretary Cathy Stepp approving the revised “statement of scope” for NR 151. The communication instructed the DNR Secretary to send the scope statement to the Legislative Reference Bureau for publication.

Sensitive areas

The standards put forth in the rule revisions for sensitive areas may include: reduced manure spreading rates; incorporation and injection requirements; fertilizer and manure application timing requirements; emergency spreading restrictions; manure pathogen reduction requirements; soil map depth verification; manure and fertilizer setback requirements from public and private wells and from direct conduits to groundwater; and referencing the new federal technical standards. There may be additional changes considered to provide sufficient standards to achieve groundwater and surface water safety.

Agricultural producers, manure haulers, certified crop advisors, agricultural cooperatives, fertilizer sellers, county land conservation departments, the DATCP, rural residents with private wells, and users of community and non-community wells in agricultural areas are among those expected by the DNR to be impacted by these rule revisions.

Ashland meeting

At their August meeting in Ashland, the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board took up policy recommendations of the Groundwater Collaboration Workgroup.

Natural Resource Board Member Dr. Frederick Prehn, a Wausau dentist appointed to the board by Governor Walker and the board’s point person on water quality issues, presented the recommendations.  

“Up to this point, NR 151 and 243 reflected general guidance to a standardized policy approach to agricultural runoff control standards that could be characterized as ‘one size fits all.’ 

“The statement of scope before us today is reflecting the realization that it might be time to target regulatory standards and guidance to fit unique geography and hydrogeology; in this case it is Karst geology in areas of shallow soil,” Prehn explained. “Based on recommendations made in the workgroup report, today we are moving to strengthen water quality performance standards in sensitive areas that feature karst type geology with shallow soil, not just in Kewaunee and adjacent counties, but other areas with variable soil depths around the state.”

The Wisconsin Natural Resources Board expects to have the updated rule ready for public hearings in spring or early summer of 2017.

Is Driftless such an area?

Amber Meyer-Smith, Director of Programs & Government Relations for Clean Wisconsin, addressed some of the related issues during a talk recently at the ‘Water Issues’ event in Viroqua.

In answer to a question, Meyer-Smith discussed the likelihood that the Driftless Region would be one of the designated ‘sensitive areas.’

“I think that every effort will be made to avoid giving other areas in the state that designation,” Meyer-Smith said. “Once the rules are finalized and published, then it’s going to be a big fight.

“In Wisconsin, with all the rollbacks in our state’s long and venerable conservation tradition, we basically have two cornerstones of protection we must rely on legally,” Meyer-Smith explained. “Our state constitution contains the Public Trust Doctrine, which holds our state’s waters in trust for all citizens, and the federal Clean Water Act establishes the minimum protections that water must enjoy in all states.

“It’s just sad that with our strong conservation tradition, providing leadership and inspiration for the whole nation over the years, we now have to start from scratch, go back to the absolute fundamentals legally, and fight for all the protections that our citizens always used to have for our natural heritage,” Meyer-Smith said.

Driftless Region

The Driftless Region in Southwest Wisconsin, Southeast Minnesota, Northeast Iowa and Northwest Illinois is characterized by the beauty of its hills and valleys, but also by its hydrogeology – karst geology.

Karst is a landscape formed from the dissolution of soluble rocks such as limestone, dolomite and gypsum. It is characterized by underground drainage systems with sinkholes and caves.

Because of its highly fractured nature, in combination with the type of soil typical to the region, the depth of the soil, the height of the water table, and the prevailing land use management in the area, this type of topography can make a region more susceptible to groundwater contamination.

Other overriding considerations are direct conduits to groundwater. These can be geologic features like sinkholes, manmade features like wells, channels or drain tile outlets that drain to direct conduits to groundwater. They can be associated drainage areas that contribute to those features such as a watershed associated with a closed depression. Location of wells and setbacks, and weather conditions also factor into risks.

Local specifics

There are five soil areas in Crawford County overlaying the fractured karst bedrock – uplands, sandy terraces, silty terraces, silty bottoms and alluvial. State maps show the soil depth across the entire area to be 0-50 feet in depth, which is considered ‘shallow.’

“Unlike the karst hydrology in Kewaunee County, where the aquifer is located in the karstic formation very close to the surface, the aquifers of the Driftless region are located deep in the ancient layered bedrock strata,” explained Dr. Kelvin Rodolfo, a geologist speaking at ‘Water Issues.’ The event took place in Viroqua on Monday, Oct. 10 and was produced by the Vernon County Democratic Party.

“In both systems, water and any infiltrated pollutants can travel very quickly through the system, but in the Driftless, and more so the further south you go into Crawford County and down toward Prairie du Chien, once the pollutants get into the water-soaked, porous and fractured rock formations, they are there to stay.

“By contrast, in Kewaunee County’s karst, the aquifers will become contaminated very quickly, but also have the potential to flush the toxins out comparatively quickly,” Dr. Rodolfo said. “There’s no question that both regions, by virtue of the underlying geology, are highly vulnerable, sensitive areas.”

In Crawford County, barnyard runoff and spreading of manure (especially on frozen ground) are the two principal sources of animal waste pollution in the county. Bacteria, sediment, ammonia and nutrients are the major culprits that foul the water.

Crawford County farmers have followed a statewide trend and expanded their operations, resulting in fewer barnyards and more confined herds. The result is fewer barnyard issues, but more land spreading problems, especially in late winter and early spring.

Nitrate levels over 10.0 mg/l have been detected in some wells in Crawford County.

Any Nitrate amount over 10.0 mg/l exceeds state groundwater standards. At this level, it is recommended that infants and pregnant women not consume the water because nitrates interfere with the ability of blood to carry oxygen.

High nitrate levels may also be an indication that other contaminants are present in the drinking water. High nitrate concentrations in the drinking water have also been linked to spontaneous abortions in livestock.

Currently, 16 dairies in Crawford County average between 100 and 200 cows milked daily with approximately a third confining the herd and two-thirds using pasture in their management.

The rotational grazing community in the county is growing and is greater than 35 percent of the dairies. Properly managed grazing has been shown to greatly reduce overland flow of waste to waters.

From the 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture for Crawford County, we can track changes in animal and crop agriculture in the county from 1990 to 2012.

Hay acres decreased from 57,300 in 1990 to 29,629 in 2012, while soybean acres increased from 1,400 to 15,002.

In this time period, there were also dramatic reductions in the number of dairy cows, milk production, cattle and hogs in the county. During those 22 years, annual milk production decreased by 45 percent and the number of milk cows and hogs decreased by over 50 percent. Cattle decreased by 30 percent.

The county currently has only one permitted Confined Animal Feeding Operation, Roth Feeder Pigs, near Wauzeka. The receiving water for surface water and groundwater for the facility is located within the Boydtown Creek Watershed in the Lower Wisconsin River Basin.

“One of the reasons that this operation is a threat to water quality in the area and south into Grant County is that the farm is surrounded by multiple direct conduits to groundwater such as wells and sinkholes, and is located on top of a karst formation itself,” Dr. Rodolfo noted.

Kewaunee specifics

Similar to the Driftless Region, Kewaunee County in northeast Wisconsin also has a karst topography.

Kewaunee County sits in the Lake Michigan Basin and is primarily an agricultural county with approximately 173 farms, of which 16 are large Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or CAFOs, which are defined as farms with greater than 1,000 animal units.

Since 1983, Kewaunee County has seen a cattle increase from 59,800 to approximately 98,000 total animals, with the number of dairy cows increasing from 30,300 to approximately 45,500. When cattle manure is applied to cropland and pasture, it can be a source of nitrates and pathogens in groundwater.

Within Kewaunee County there are areas of shallow soils (less than 60 inches) over fractured bedrock and other areas where fractured bedrock is located at the surface. Pollutants from agricultural fields, animal feeding operations or septic systems can enter groundwater through these conduits and be taken up in water wells, causing the water to be unsafe for drinking and other household uses.

A majority of Kewaunee County residents rely on groundwater for their drinking water, which is provided by private wells. Of wells tested, results showed approximately one third have been unsafe due to high nitrates (10 ppm or greater) and/or bacteria. The percentage of unsafe wells increases in townships like Lincoln and Red River that have shallow soils over karst bedrock.