WAUZEKA - On Wednesday, June 30, Claire O’Connell, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) senior wastewater specialist, notified the public that the Wisconsin Pollution Discharge Elimination System (WPDES) permit for the Roth Feeder Pigs I hog CAFO facility in Wauzeka Township has been reissued for another five years.
In the ‘Notice of Final Determination to Reissue (NOFD),’ it was noted that the first day of the new permit would be Wednesday, July 1. The permit will expire on June 30, 2026.
At the public informational hearing held by WDNR regarding the permit reissuance, the NOFD noted that “one participant attended and indicated support for the reissuance of the permit.”
The NOFD noted that “a significant number of comments were received from people who attended the public informational hearing or submitted written comments to indicate their opposition to the proposed reissuance of the permit.”
Ultimately, most of the comments in opposition to renewal of the Roth Feeder Pig I water quality permit presented factual reasons why they believe the WPDES permit issued from WDNR will fail to protect groundwater and surface water. The DNR acknowledged that a WPDES permit does not prevent the possibility of pollution.
“WPDES permits are operating licenses and almost all have conditions that allow some level of pollutants to be added to the environment,” the NOFD reads.
Later in the NOFD, WDNR responded to the contention that private wells in the area of the Roth facility in Wauzeka were already polluted from the operation.
“The department does not claim that the requirements of a WPDES permit, including the requirement to develop and implement a nutrient management plan, will guarantee that water quality will not be impacted. As with any license or permit that is issued, there is potential for environmental impacts associated with permit non-compliance or situations not easily or explicitly addressed by prescriptive permit requirements,” the NOFD reads.
The WDNR response in the NOFD made it quite clear that private well owners in the vicinity of a CAFO operation or the land where their manure would be spread are basically on their own.
“The protection and maintenance of private wells, wells that are not part of a public water supply, is largely the responsibility of homeowners. The department does not have authority to deny a WPDES permit for groundwater remediation,” the NOFD reads.
Indeed, WDNR all but acknowledges that, as they do not have sufficient staff to put in the field to monitor WPDES permit compliance, the burden thus falls on private well owners to monitor their well water quality.
“The department suggests that private well owners neighboring a CAFO document existing conditions by having the water quality and quantity in their wells measured by a licensed well driller or pump installer,” the NOFD reads.
Opponents of reissuing the permit also contend that WDNR should be engaged in more monitoring of CAFO WPDES permit compliance. They say that relying on ‘self-reporting’ by the operator is insufficient to ensure compliance. WDNR says that the WPDES program is based on the national program and their hands are tied.
“The department implements the CAFO WPDEs permit program in accordance with the authority provided by the state legislature under ch. 283 Stats., and with oversight by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency… Self-reporting is a key component of the federal NPDES permit program that serves as a basis for Wisconsin’s WPDES permit program,” the NOFD reads.
For all these reasons, opponents of this permit reissuance, and of the issuance of a permit for Roth’s proposed facility continue to call on WDNR to perform an ‘Environmental Impact Study’ of the proposed Roth Feeder Pigs II facility in Marietta Township.
Crawford Stewardship Project encourages citizens to contact the following department heads and elected leaders to express any concerns:
David Siebert (DNR Di-vision Administrator): Da-vid.Siebert@wisconsin.gov (mail-to:David.Siebert@wisconsin.gov)
Todd Ambs (DNR Depu-ty Secretary): Todd.Ambs@wisconsin.gov (mail-to:Todd.Ambs@wisconsin.gov)
Preston Cole (DNR Sec-retary): Pres-ton.Cole@wisconsin.gov (mail-to:Preston.Cole@wisconsin.gov)
Mandela Barnes (WI Lieutenant Governor): L (mail-to:firstname.lastname@example.org) tGoveremail@example.com (mail-to:firstname.lastname@example.org)
The basic contention of WDNR is that because Roth Feeder Pigs manure storage structures are covered by a roof, and their days of storage exceed the minimum required of 181 days, the likelihood of extreme rainfall causing a discharge into surface water is small.
The language in the NOFD references “average precipitation levels,” which are the levels as represented by the outdated 2012 Atlas 14 data currently used by USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and WDNR. One has only to think of the catastrophic rainfall that impacted Marietta and Wauzeka townships in 2019, and the rain event that impacted areas just to the north in Seneca and Eastman townships on June 26, 2021. In that most recent rain event, from 8-12 inches of rain fell in six hours or less, and caused catastrophic flash flooding. In the 2019 event, the rainfall came late in the season when manure is most likely to be spread on fields.
NRCS acknowledges that the rainfall definitions being used for a variety of things, including WPDES permits and nutrient management plans is outdated. The 2012 Atlas 14 data will be updated in 2022. Meanwhile in the course of studying the flood control dams that breached in the 2018 rain and flooding event, Wisconsin NRCS commissioned a rainfall study which showed a clear increase in rainfall amounts in the Driftless Region.
Nonetheless, WDNR makes it quite clear that if permit and nutrient management plans are followed, runoff or increased percolation of rainwater and nutrients into the aquifers are not subject to WPDES permitting.
“Any precipitation-related discharges of pollutants which occur from land application areas after compliance with permit conditions and nutrient management plan are considered agricultural storm water discharges, which are not subject to WPDES permitting,” the NOFD reads.
Outdated Atlas 14 data is used not only to define precipitation events, but also in a variety of other ways by WDNR’s CAFO program.
According to Eric Struck of the Wisconsin DNR, engineering staff from his department say that USDA-NRCS, Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (DATCP), and the DNR CAFO program all use Atlas 14 rainfall depths in calculating rainfall volumes for all of their review-able facilities - manure storage structures, pipe capacity, etc. He said that the state NR 243, which regulates ‘Animal Feeding Operations,’ has the old Technical Paper 40 rainfall depths, but says that the wording is such that they use newer, approved data. Struck said that “agencies switched around 2015, and updated rainfall depths are currently being worked on.”
Jennifer Heaton-Amhrein, DATCP Land Resources Section Chief, reports that, according to a DATCP engineer, DATCP uses Atlas 14 data for the DNR CAFO Program, the DATCP Conservation Engineering Section, and the conservation partners we service and work with such as NRCS and County Land Conservation Departments have been using this revised rainfall data for projects since 2015 for the following types of practices:
• Animal waste storage facilities (manure, barnyard runoff, milk house waste)
• Feed storage area runoff collection and treatment
• Grassed and lined waterways
• Roof gutter and clean water diversion
• Vegetated Treatment Areas (VTA)
• Other erosion and sediment control practices (grade stabilization, Water & Sediment Control Basins, etc.)
The Atlas 14 rainfall data has been incorporated into the majority of hydrology programs and analysis tools that we use in designing conservation practices that use peak runoff and runoff volume calculations.
When pressed about the threat of nitrate contamination of groundwater aquifers in the Driftless, given the fractured karst geology of the region, the NOFD had this to say:
“The department has initiated rule changes related to ch. NR 151 [Runoff Management] to create targeted performance standards to protect groundwater quality… and is working with key public and agriculture industry stakeholders, state agencies, the State Legislature, the governor, and the general public to update NR 151 with a targeted nitrate standard.”
This is all fine and well, but the initial map released by WDNR for areas to be regulated by the proposed nitrate standard reveal that there are no areas to be included in Crawford County. The reasons for this is that there is insufficient data on well water quality to merit areas in the county being considered for more stringent rules.”
The cutoff for data that went into creating the map occurred well prior to the conclusion of the Driftless Area Water Study (DAWS) undertaken by Crawford, Vernon and Richland counties. The final results of that well water testing were released in June of 2020.
Since November of 2018, a total of five well water-testing initiatives have taken place in the three-county area. The Tainter Creek Watershed Council (TCWC) tested wells in Crawford County Utica Township and Vernon County Franklin Township. They tested wells on three occasions. Their first test was in November 2018 (44 samples), the second in November 2019 (39 samples), and the third in April 2021 (25 samples) in conjunction with the second round of DAWS testing.
DAWS well testing events occurred in October of 2020 (293 samples), and April 2021 (270 samples). In addition, Crawford Stewardship Project conducted a well water test in March of 2019 (53 samples).
In total, from these sampling events, 699 wells were tested in the three-county area between November of 2018 and April of 2021. Of those tests, 127 wells showed no nitrate detected (18 percent), and 206 wells showed a nitrate result of two mg/L or less (30 percent). In the mid-range of between 2.1-10 mg/L, 169 wells showed a nitrate result of between 2.1-5 mg/L (24 percent), and 128 of the wells showed a nitrate result of between 5.1-10 mg/L (18 percent). In the ‘unsafe to drink’ range of 10.1 mg/L or greater, a total 65 wells (nine percent) showed this result. Nineteen wells showed a nitrate result of between 10.1-20 mg/L (three percent), and seven wells showed a nitrate result of 20.1 mg/L or greater (one percent).
Specifically in Crawford County, Utica and Marietta townships have some of the highest levels of documented nitrate contamination of groundwater. Utica Township’s results indicate the high amounts of tests due to both DAWS as well as repeated testing events conducted by TCWC. What this reveals is that nitrate problems will come to light with adequate levels of testing.
Subtracting the high levels of testing from TCWC events, Marietta Township with only average levels of testing is already showing high levels (25 percent of wells with nitrate levels at the unsafe to drink level).
Wauzeka Township is conspicuous for its low levels of participation in well water testing, and so the opposite of the results for Utica Township is reflected. Lower levels of testing mean lower levels of understanding of contamination issues. Nevertheless, a 2019 testing event conducted by Crawford Stewardship Project (CSP) revealed that the worst nitrate result was in Wauzeka Township, from wells located just below the Roth facility.
In addition, overall, with all of the 699 well water samples tested in the county through DAWS, CSP, and the TCWC, 123 wells tested positive for coliform bacteria (18 percent). Of those wells, 12 tested positive for E.coli (two percent).
As pointed out by individuals who spoke in the public hearing, the worst results for E.coli, a particularly dangerous form of coliform bacteria, were from wells located down gradient of the Roth Feeder Pigs facility in Wauzeka.
“We [CSP] monitor a spring at the site [of Roth Feeder Pigs] and often find elevated phosphorous and E.coli right where the groundwater comes out of the hill. Of the 53 well tests conducted throughout the county in 2019, by far the highest results for nitrates came from a well just down gradient from the facility.”
The NOFD response reads…
“The department’s Water Resources program did review this [CSP water quality monitoring results] information. The department concluded that the report does not provide enough information at this time to know if the reported levels of phosphorous, E.coli or background bacteria are directly associated with this facility. There have been no reported or observed violations of Roth Feeder Pig’s permit conditions that would lead the department to believe these conditions are directly associated with this facility at this time.”
Not only that, but the geology and soil maps the department is relying on in their ‘integrated analysis’ date from the 1800s. Updated soil maps for the county were to have been released in 2020 by Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, but were delayed due to COVID.
A map from the 1800s of Crawford County’s soils, used by Kevin Masarik in presenting DAWS well water testing results in June of 2021 revealed thatmuch of Crawford County is characterized by shallow levels of soil over the bedrock – less than five feet. He said that more than 70 percent of the area has bedrock within five feet of the surface, with only eroded areas near the river bottoms having more significant depth of soil of 50 feet or more.
“Areas with shallow depths of soil to bedrock are areas where the groundwater is more vulnerable to contamination,” Masarik explained. “This can allow contaminants such as coliform bacteria and nitrate to infiltrate into groundwater from the surface relatively quickly.”
Targeted nitrate standards developed for 15 counties in the eastern part of the state, including Kewaunee County, prohibit manure spreading on fields with less than two feet of soil over bedrock or groundwater.
Despite this, a recent study released by Tucker Burch, a U.S. Department of Agriculture research agricultural engineer, revealed the following:
“More than 80 percent of [gastrointenstinal illness] cases were predicted to come from wells located where the depth to bedrock is greater than 20 feet — where most people’s wells are located [in Kewaunee County].”
Burch’s research team is conducting a similar study in the southwestern Wis-consin counties of Iowa, Grant and Lafayette, and hope to present findings this fall. A study of groundwater conducted in 2018 in those counties found that 34 percent of 301 sampled wells tested positive for coliform, 16 percent for nitrate, and 4 percent for E. Coli.
Without a targeted nitrate standard that acknowledges that the state’s ‘one-size-fits-all’ runoff management standards are not sufficient to protect groundwater quality, the current standards appear to be inadequate to protect Crawford County’s groundwater. In the NOFD, WDNR states the following:
“The approved nutrient management plan contains specific procedures for field verification of bedrock depth prior to manure applications to those areas of a field that may have bedrock within 24 inches of surface.”
‘P’ levels and nitrate
Opponents of reissuing the Roth water quality permit have documented that many of Roth’s fields are over the 200 parts-per-million (ppm) phosphorous levels. This is the level at which the fields are no longer eligible for applications of manure. They also contend that the same fields shown to be over the phosphorous limit are the ones most likely to be leaching nitrate into the groundwater aquifers.
One opponent to reissuance of the permit stated the following:
“Soil phosphorous has skyrocketed to excessive levels on many fields [included in Roth’s nutrient management plan] to the point where in some cases it has been projected that reducing those levels to acceptable standards will take over a century of no spreading – but spreading continues.”
Another opponent details:
“Mr. Roth’s history is that he doesn’t spread on all his spreadable acres… Mr. Roth claims 455.8 total spreadable acreage, but reported only spreading on 252.5 acres in the last 12 months. For 2020, Mr. Roth claimed 448.5 spreadable acres, but reported spreading on 181 acres in the previous 12 months. For 2019, he claimed 514 total spreadable acres but reported spreading only on 179.5 in the previous 12 months.”
In the NOFD, WDNR responded:
“If a CAFO applies phosphorous from manure or process wastewater on a field with a soil test phosphorous level of 200 ppm or greater, it is considered non-compliant with their nutrient management plan.”
An opponent then asked:
“If they’re supposed to stop spreading after 200 ppm, then how can some of his fields gotten to 300 ppm?”
Finally, one of the opponents to permit reissuance made the following connection to high phosphorous in the fields and nitrate contamination of groundwater:
“We know that there are direct relationships between soil test phosphorous and the impacts to surface water and ground water quality… the fields we are finding with the highest levels of soil test phosphorous are also the same fields that are leaching the greatest amounts of nitrate to our groundwater and drinking water supplies.”
Opponents of the permit reissuance insisted that ‘self-reporting’ on the part of the operator was insufficient to ensure that water in Crawford County is protected. They demanded that WDNR install groundwater quality monitoring wells both at the facility, but also at fields where manure is spread.
“Due to the sensitive topography and geology of the region, WDNR should require groundwater monitoring at the production facility and land spreading fields. The permit fails to ensure compliance with groundwater quality standards… This operation sits atop Prairie du Chien Dolomite, which is inherently karstic, and the surrounding areas are filled with karst features. This topography and geology, which is similar to that of the 15 counties in the northeast part of the state [regulated by targeted nitrate performance standards] is associated with an increased risk of groundwater contamination from surface activities like manure spreading. Given the identified potential of groundwater contamination resulting from Roth Feeder Pigs management, WDNR must analyze the need for on-site and off-site groundwater monitoring.”
In the NOFD, WDNR responds:
“The department’s authority to require groundwater monitoring of wells in areas outside of a CAFO’s production areas is currently being considered by Wisconsin’s Supreme Court.”
It goes on to say:“The site inspection conducted in October 2020 as part of the [permit] reissuance process… yielded no indication that a groundwater monitoring system should be required by the proposed draft permit, and there have been no known groundwater discharges from this facility.”