VERNON AND MONROE - Following a discussion in which almost 40 Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Vernon County Land Conservation committee and staff members, and almost 20 interested citizens discussed recent manure-related fish kills in Vernon County, the Land Conservation Committee made a big decision.
Vernon County Land Conservation Committee member Rod Ofte moved, and Kelli Mitchell seconded, a motion to form a committee to collaborate with Monroe County on revisions and updates to both counties’ manure storage ordinances. The motion passed unanimously.
Vernon County Conservationist Ben Wojahn and Monroe County Conservationist Bob Micheel will lead the committee, to be made up of five to seven people. The group is intended to include farmers, business owners, and interested citizens, as well as the county conservationists.
Before the vote, committee chairman Supervisor Will Beitlich reminded the committee that the last major revision to the Vernon County ordinance had taken place in 2004.
“I see it as a great benefit that Monroe County will simultaneously update their ordinance, and we can work with them,” Beitlich said. “We have farmers that straddle our county line, so it will be good for both counties to work together.”
Wojahn told the committee that he had discussed the collaboration with Bob Micheel, and both of them felt that the process would be beneficial.
“The meetings will be held virtually, and all Land Conservation Committee members from both counties will be welcome to participate,” Wojahn said. “We intend to allow for public participation and comments in the process as well.”
Wojahn said that he and Micheel envision holding three meetings to discuss needed revisions and updates to their ordinances. The first will be educational, with staff from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) helping committee members to understand what the options are. The second meeting will take a look at examples of ordinances from other counties. The final meeting will be for an overview of proposed changes and approving them for consideration by each county’s Land Conservation Committee.
Supervisor Kevin Larson asked about the county’s Livestock Facility Siting Ordinance, and whether that was out of date as well, or not being appropriately used.
“I believe that both ordinances are out of date, and could benefit from a review and update,” Wojahn responded. “I think we should start with looking at manure storage, and then move on to taking a look at livestock facility siting.”
Wojahn reminded the committee that any proposed changes will have to be consistent with rules and standards employed by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), WDNR and DATCP.
Monroe County’s take
When contacted after the meeting, Monroe County Conservationist Bob Micheel had this to say:
“Our manure storage ordinance is aged, and needs updating relative to standards and specifications,” Micheel said. “Agriculture has evolved with technology relative to manure management.”
Micheel said that he thinks both counties agree that a holistic approach is needed for manure/nutrient management when working with farmers around storage, management and utilization.
“Climate change is another factor we need to consider,” Micheel said. “For example, in designing storage facilities how do we handle 60 inches of precipitation in one year?”
Micheel observed that the cost to mitigate could be high when implementing standards to address new precipitation amounts in terms of roofs, increasing the storage area, and etc.
“All of these mentioned items will need to be explored/addressed in the re-write,” Micheel said.
Fish kills discussion
The main reason that attendance was so high at the meeting was the discussion and public comment period about manure-related fish kills in recent years.
Up for discussion were the 2017 and 2019 spills and fish kills from Wild Rose Dairy into Otter Creek, a spill and fish kill in 2019 on Bostwick Creek in LaCrosse County, a fish kill classified cause unknown in Brush Creek in rural Cashton in 2019, and the most recent spill and fish kill from the Mlsna East Town Dairy on October 30, 2020 into Knapp Creek.
WDNR Deputy Director from the Eau Claire office, Jill Schoen, kicked off the discussion.
“Resources in the Driftless Area have been hard hit in recent years with rain and runoff,” Schoen observed. “I have worked with Matt Albright from the Vernon Land Conservation Department, as well as with Claire O’Connell and Eric Struck from WDNR CAFO Program, WDNR County Conservation Warden Shawna Stringham, and WDNR Fisheries Biologist Kirk Olson to address the issues.”
Schoen acknowledged that WDNR enforcement and open records issues have come up in recent weeks, and said that was the purpose of participating in this meeting.
“WDNR takes a stepped approach to enforcement, with the goal being compliance.” Schoen said. “This requires an interagency collaboration that involves WDNR, DOJ, and in some cases, EPA, and it takes time. As far as open enforcement cases, they are a priority.”
Schoen said that there are a lot of considerations that go into deciding on an enforcement action for a manure spill and fish kills. She said WDNR looks at the volume of manure spilled versus what was reported. This, she said, if often very difficult to quantify, and our response often has to be focused on a reported amount. She said that the situations are complex, but the long-term solutions will involve being proactive.
“I think venues like this meeting today are a welcome start to pursuing this discussion,” Schoen said. “I’m glad to see the item on your agenda about discussion of updating your manure storage ordinance.”
Kirk Olson, WDNR Fisheries Biologist from the LaCrosse office explained his role. He said he covers all waters except the Mississippi River in LaCrossse, Monroe, Vernon and Crawford counties.
“My role is to document the extent of the impact of spills and kills to fisheries, and recommend restoration strategies,” Olson explained. “I also assist the warden in investigations.”
Shawna Stringham, WDNR Conservation Warden for the West Central Region Mississippi River Team discussed her involvement with recent manure spills and fish kills in the Driftless Region.
“With Vernon County Conservationist Ben Wojahn, I have been a first responder on the scene of these incidents,” Stringham explained. “My role is to respond, find the source, interview the landowner, and contact the water quality and fisheries teams.”
Stringham said, that as far as enforcement of spills and kills goes, she performs the investigation, and then hands it off to the WDNR CAFO Team and the Department of Justice “to ensure consistency.”
Eric Struck, WDNR Senior Wastewater Specialist from the Horicon Marsh office, and Claire O’Connell, WDNR Senior Wastewater Specialist from the Dodgeville office also attended the meeting.
“I cover Adams, Juneau, Monroe, LaCrosse, Vernon, Richland, Crawford, and Iowa counties for WDNR,” O’Connell said. “My role is to work with agency partners and internal programs on the environmental enforcement program.”
Joan Peterson, who lives on Green Hollow Road, just below the Wild Rose Dairy, in rural LaFarge was the first to offer a public comment.
“I am aware of the two spills into Otter Creek from the Wild Rose Dairy in 2017 and 2019, and am glad to see WDNR staff attending this meeting today,” Peterson said. “I think the Vernon County Land Conservation Committee (VLCC) is also glad to see you here today.”
Peterson said that she is concerned about the manure spills and would like to see the VLCC be proactive. She is concerned about the impact of the more severe rainfall events the area has experienced in recent years, and stated her interest in serving on the committee to review and update the county’s manure storage ordinance.
Jillian Ritchie of Viroqua spoke next. She told meeting participants that she had moved to the area a year ago with her husband and daughter.
“We moved here because of the beauty, and the clean air and water,” Ritchie said. “I urge you to err on the side of caution, and to put new or expanding CAFOs on hold. You need to better understand the impacts of increasingly severe rainfall events, climate change, and evaluate those impacts on tourism in the area.”
Lars Bergen, a Vernon County resident who lives in the Knapp Creek/West Fork Kickapoo Watersheds discussed his views on the situation.
“The West Fork Kickapoo River is important to local residents and to trout fishers from outside the area,” Bergen stated. “No farmer owns the water or has the right to damage it. It is important for WDNR and the county to protect the resource, and prevent these spills and fish kills from happening every six months now until forever.”
Doug Erdman is a Trout Unlimited member from Wisconsin Rapids who stated that he spends as much as 50 days per year in the Driftless Region for trout fishing. He said that when he travels to the area, he spends money on gas, lodging, food and at retail stores.
“My dad and uncle are old, and over the years I have taken them fishing on Otter Creek because it is relatively easy to access the stream for older fishers,” Erdman said. “Old guys like them don’t have time to wait for the stream to recover from the spills and fish kills. How can you place a value on lost recreational opportunities?”
Erdman said that the Driftless Region is attractive to trout fishers because it has the largest concentration of spring fed creeks in the world.
“The counties and WDNR need to work together on updating ordinances, and on enforcement of violations and penalties,” Erdman said. “We have a responsibility to protect the resource for future generations.”
Tom Lukens, board chairman of Valley Stewardship Network, and West Fork Kickapoo River Watershed business owner, spoke next.
“I appreciate the VLCC holding this discussion,” Lukens said. “As a resident who owns a business in the West Fork of the Kickapoo River that is based on trout fishing tourism, I think it is important that our surface waters be recognized as a public resource that benefits all of us.”
Lukens stated that he also would be interested in serving on the committee to review the manure storage ordinance.
Ruthie Zahm, co-owner of the Driftless Café in Viroqua, discussed her perspective as a local business owner who grew up on a farm.
“I hear as a business owner from people who tell me that they may choose to travel to a different place to fish because of the spills,” Zahm said. “Trout fishing and farming is how our area’s economy survives – both activities are important to our local economy.”
Zahm said that she too would be willing to serve on the committee.
Matt Wagner, owner of the Driftless Angler store in Viroqua, told the VLCC that his business is 100 percent dependent on trout fishing in the area.
“All of these manure spills and fish kills are a huge knock to Vernon County’s reputation,” Wagner said. “I literally get hundreds and hundreds of questions about what the county is doing about this situation.”
Wagner reminded the committee that trout fishing in the Driftless Region is a $1.6 billion per year industry.
“Lack of action and enforcement of these spills and kills is hurting small businesses, responsible farmers, and the county’s reputation,” Wagner said. “There are lots of responsible farmers, and lots of conservation groups that invest a lot of money into improving and restoring the trout fisheries in the region – and we also have a small number of serial polluters that are damaging the resource.”
Mlsna East Town Dairy owner, Nick Mlsna, was the the second to last person to offer a public comment.
“Nobody feels worse about manure spills and fish kills than farmers do,” Mlsna said. “My family has lived and farmed in this area for 120 years. I’m the fifth generation of my family to farm here. We get treated like an inanimate object. If anyone has any questions about our operation, I invite you to come and visit the farm, and I thank the WDNR for clarifying that the cause of the 2019 fish kill in Brush Creek is unknown.”
Supervisor Kevin Larson spoke last.“I have spent time in the West Fork of the Kickapoo River since 1964,” Larson said. “Over the years, the area has become a lot more progressive, and the water quality has improved – it’s a great place to fish.