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Natural Resources Board continues to define sensitive areas
Glass of Water

DRIFTLESS - The Natural Resources Board at their meeting on May 23-24 in Madison heard a status report on work to develop changes for ‘Sensitive Areas’ to NR 151, a regulation that governs nutrient management in the state.

This month, the DNR released a draft of updates to manure control rules for agriculture.

You can read more about the draft rules on the Midwest Environmental Advocates website at

More general public comments will be accepted later in the process, but the economic impact assessment is the next step. EIA comments are due by Monday, August 7.

The next step in the process is for the state to conduct an economic impact analysis. In order for the DNR to see the full picture of the impacts of manure spreading rules, now is the time for business and property owners to tell the DNR about their concerns.

Southwestern Wisconsin has not been included as a “sensitive area” in the draft rules, though the region has had groundwater quality problems.

History of the work

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 (GCW). 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 water pollution and its associated health risks.

The central point addressed by the GCW 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 GCW 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.”

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 GCW to identify the “sensitive areas,” where the new rules would apply.

Geology and topography

At their May 2017 meeting, the Board heard a report about how specialists have identified where some of the areas are that are concerning the experts, DNR, farmers and the public. They have a lot of data on the east side of Wisconsin. Kewaunee was described as ‘the epicenter.’ The west side has been identified, but there is not as much data coming in.

It was reported that these are areas that the DNR is looking at carefully as far as where they are going to focus their attention.

Large areas of the state have an underlying Karst geology. Counties in the state where virtually the entire area is karstic include Crawford, Door, Grant, Green, Iowa, Lafayette, LaCrosse, Pierce, Richland and Vernon.

Counties in the state where most of the area is karstic include Dane, Dodge, Rock, St. Croix and Trempealeau.

Counties where part of the area is karstic include Buffalo, Fondulac, Jefferson, Kewaunee, Manitowoc, Marinette, Monroe, Oconto, Ozaukee, Outagamie, Pepin, Sauk, Shawano, Sheboygan, Walworth, Washington, Waukesha and Winnebago.

Western Wisconsin

Of the ten counties in Wisconsin where virtually the entire area is karstic, five are located in Southwest Wisconsin, two in Western Wisconsin, two in South Central Wisconsin, and one in Eastern Wisconsin.

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.

 “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 karstic counties in West and Southwest Wisconsin are located deep in the ancient layered bedrock strata,” explained Geologist Dr. Kelvin Rodolfo, a well-known authority on Karst geology.

“In both systems, water and any infiltrated pollutants can travel very quickly through the system, but in the West and Southwest, once the pollutants get into the water-soaked, porous and fractured rock formations, they are there to stay,” Dr. Rodolfo explained

“By contrast, in Kewaunee County’s karst which has received so much press recently for it’s contaminated wells, the aquifers will become contaminated very quickly, but also have the potential to flush the toxins out comparatively quickly,” Dr. Rodolfo said.

Another karstic area with contaminated wells closer to home has hit the news recently.  The La Crosse County Health Department has issued a health advisory after dangerous levels of nitrates and bacteria were found in private wells in the Town of Onalaska and the Town of Holland.

Jen Rombalski, Health Director for La Crosse County, said the water contamination comes from many sources including fertilizers, waste disposal, faulty septic systems, and changes in land use. She has advised private well owners that this may be a long-term problem, and to test the water every year.

What’s next?

At their May meeting, the Natural Resources Board was told that what will happen next is the GCW will keep talking about the four-R’s as far as manure goes.

Four R’s: Is it the right rate? Is it the right time? Is it the right source? Is it the right place? The thinking expressed was that if they can somehow change these things in the regulations, they can change a lot of the issues that are coming up in front of the board.

The minutes of the meeting stated that the DNR will focus a lot on these big Four R’s and come forward by July with a draft package of what they want to do. After that,  “the public gets a kick at the can throughout summer.”

The full rule change will return in front of the Board in December 2017. The final proposal will then go across the street to the legislative branch before its implementation.

It was stressed that this is very fast-paced, and they are impressed with the amount of data that is there. This is actually something they believe they can do something about. They believe the DNR is poised and ready to come up with some real scientific backed suggestions and regulations for the Board and the public to consider this summer and fall.

It was reinforced that the aggressive timeline is in everyone’s best interest and that the Board is committed. They believe they are on-track to meet that timeline.

The meeting minutes stated that the DNR and administration knows this needs to be looked at and changed in one year.

DNR Deputy Secretary Thiede stated he and Secretary Stepp as well as the agency take this very seriously. He reported that they are putting the DNR’s shoulder behind it and the timeline, and will make sure they are hitting all the marks from the administrative process standpoint and still meet the expectations of the Natural Resources Board to proceed expeditiously with a solution.

Relief for Kewaunee

Well-known journalist, James Rowen, made an effort to follow up on the status of the well-publicized DNR initiative to provide bottled water to well owners with contaminated water, rolled out by the Department three months ago.

James Rowen is a writer and consultant, and has worked for newspapers. His blog began in 2007, and posts also run at various news sites, including The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's "Purple Wisconsin."

In mid-July, Rowen e-mailed DNR spokesman James Dick and asked how much of the promised water had been distributed in Kewaunee County. Rowen followed up because he'd been hearing that people in rural Wisconsin were dissatisfied with the program

DNR spokesman James Dick's e-mail response to Rowen was: As of yesterday [Tuesday, July 12], no one has applied for bottled water as required under the NR 738 criteria.

Rowen reported in his blog, ‘The Political Environment’ on Wednesday, July 12, that there had been reports that the directions for obtaining bottled included at the DNR's webpage are confusing for some elderly residents, that the eligibility requirements can be hard to grasp or meet, and that for some computer access was a barrier to seeking relief.

Rowen noted that while there is information on the DNR website about the program, he has yet to see a public awareness campaign to promote it.

Rowen pointed out that Wisconsin residents and taxpayers are supposed to get bottled water because the DNR and its CAFO permittees are not effectively stopping the flow of brown water into the drinking water.