RICHLAND CENTER - With water quality an increasingly top-of-mind topic for citizens in Wisconsin, a ‘Richland Water Quality Forum’ event drew more than 50 participants to the Lighthouse Chapel in Richland Center on Saturday, March 16. Presenters at the forum included Norlene Emerson, Professor of Geology at UW-Platteville-Richland; Scott Laeser, organic farmer and Water Program Director from Clean Wisconsin; and Melissa Luck, Richland County Board of Supervisors and member of the Richland County Land and Water Committee (RCLWC).
Additional panelists included Connie Champnoise of the Richland Stewardship Project; Kriss Marion of the Lafayette County Board and Land and Water Committee; and Forest Jahnke of the Crawford Stewardship Project.
Professor Norlene Emerson took participants through an explanation of the Karst Geology, which underlies the Driftless Area. She explained that because of its fractured nature, the geology of the area means that the groundwater is highly vulnerable to contamination from pollutants on the surface. Karst areas in Wisconsin cover a horseshoe-shaped area, which runs down the east side of the state from Green Bay, across the entire southern tier of the state, and then up the west side of the state to just north of LaCrosse.
Land and Water
Supervisor Luck had just returned from the State Land and Water Convention held in Stevens Point the week before. The event gathered county conservationists, land conservation committee members, and concerned citizens to discuss land and water issues facing the State of Wisconsin.
“The conference gathered representatives from all 72 of Wisconsin’s counties,” Luck told the crowd. “Water issues were the topic of many of the breakout sessions, and I learned a lot, but there is so much more to learn. Water issues are very complex.”
Luck explained that the reason so many of the sessions dealt with the topic of water quality is because citizens are increasingly becoming aware of water quality issues and talking about them.
“At the RCLWC we are just learning, but we’re getting caught up fast,” Luck said. “Our committee is concerned to do due diligence in pursuing these issues for the residents of our county.”
Luck said that she was happy when Governor Evers declared 2019 the ‘Year of Clean Water,’ and further, Richland County is represented by three members of the Wisconsin State Assembly – Todd Novak, Travis Tranel, and Tony Kurtz. All three of these representatives have been appointed to serve on Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’ ‘Water Quality Task Force.’
“The fact that all three of our Assembly representatives are serving on the task force is a good thing,” Luck said. “We’ll have their ear, but we have to be vocal, we have to show up at the public hearings, and we have to advocate for ourselves.”
Luck pointed out that the increased statewide awareness of water quality issues means that there will be increasing competition for funding for testing initiatives.
She went on to tell meeting participants that there are 3,769 private wells in Richland County; 16 municipal wells; and 33 other private wells used by businesses for practices such as irrigation.
“What you need to know is that if you test your private well, and the test shows contamination, the state will not force you to fix the problem,” Luck said. “Private wells are the sole responsibility of the well owner – they won’t force you to do anything, and under the current parameters, they won’t help you either.”
Luck explained that the Richland County Land and Water Committee is actively engaged in pursuing the issue of water quality, but is taking a careful approach in order to find the best way forward that fits their county’s particular needs.
“It’s important to say that this process is not about casting blame,” Luck said. “The focus of our committee is in finding ways to work together to find solutions. The county board wants everyone to have safe drinking water, and we want to ensure that this will be a community effort.”
Well testing options
Luck explained that, particularly in situations of flooding where a well head may become submerged in flood waters, the Richland County Health and Human Services Board offers a bacteria and nitrate test through the Wisconsin State Lab of Hygiene.
The cost for the test through the state lab is $60 for just the basic test; for a homeowner’s panel, the cost is $309. By contrast, Luck explained, the UW-Extension Stevens Point Center for Watershed Science and Education (CWSE) offers a 10-panel analysis for $52 plus the cost of overnight shipping. She explained that there is also a private lab in Lancaster that will do the testing for $50, and residents could drive their samples to the testing location.
“We strongly encourage you to work with CWSE because the data then becomes part of a statewide database that is part of the public record in a centralized location,” Luck said. “Your individual test results will always be completely confidential, and your test results would be mailed only to you, but on a high, non-specific level not associated with your address or name, the results are available to the county and other conservation professionals seeking to understand water quality issues in a given area.”
Luck said that funds are very tight in Richland County, so the likelihood of a comprehensive testing program, like the SWIGG study being undertaken in Grant, Iowa and Lafayette counties, is not likely to happen in the very near future.
“However, we have helped residents who wanted to test their wells in the past by obtaining the test kits, distributing them, and transporting the samples to Stevens Point, which would save residents the cost of overnight shipping,” Luck said. “The kits may be available now at the Richland County UW-Extension office or we could arrange to have kits shipped there.”
More information about the testing options available through CWSE can be found at https://www.uwsp.edu/cnr-ap/weal/Pages/Homeowner.aspx
Sensitive Areas rule
Scott Laeser of Clean Wisconsin was on the task force that helped to develop the ‘Sensitive Area’ revisions to the one-size-fits-all state manure-spreading rule, NR. 151. The revised rule is intended to protect water quality in areas of the state where the rule is not sufficient to protect water quality. Last year, the legislature adopted the rule to cover 11 counties in Northeast Wisconsin.
“The process to develop the Sensitive Area rule was a spirited, and sometimes contentious process,” Laeser explained. “Though participants were urged to include Southwest Wisconsin under the rule, the task force declined to do so because there is not enough research on water quality and hydrogeology in the area to support such a recommendation.”
Laeser explained that without a foundation in facts based on research, the rule, if it had been extended to cover the Driftless Area, could have been challenged in court.
“This decision led to discussions early in 2018 between researchers with the United States Geological Survey (USGS), and the Wisconsin Geological & Natural History Survey (GNHS), about conducting the needed research in Southwest Wisconsin,” Laeser explained. “DNR funding for the study was requested and declined, and so Grant, Iowa and Lafayette counties stepped up to at least provide the funding to get the study launched.”
According to Laeser, Mark Borchardt, the same researcher who had spearheaded the study in Kewaunee County, became one of the lead investigators in the Southwest Wisconsin Geology and Groundwater study (SWIGG), along with State Geologist Kenneth Bradbury.
Borchardt presented his updated findings on the risk factors associated with contamination in wells at the Midwest Manure Summit in Green Bay on February 27.
In an article, ‘Most nitrate, coliform in Kewaunee County wells tied to animal waste,’ written by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism it was revealed that Borchardt’s study found the number one risk factor for contamination was the proximity of a well to a manure storage pit. Borchardt said the closest well in the study was 150 feet from a manure pit, but even wells three miles away still have some risk of being contaminated with coliform.
“According to state regulations, manure lagoons are allowed to leak up to 500 gallons per acre, per day,” Borchardt said. “Contamination of nearby wells may be due to leakage from the lagoon, as well as the tendency of farmers to spread liquid manure close to the location of their pits.”
Among Borchardt’s findings:
• septic systems were not linked with coliform and nitrate contamination, suggesting the sources are agricultural.
• coliform bacteria contamination is linked with how close a well is to a manure lagoon.
• high nitrate contamination (greater than the health limit of 10 parts per million) is linked to presence of agricultural fields around a well, distance to the nearest agricultural field, distance to nearest manure lagoon and depth to bedrock.
• the higher the number of septic system drain fields around a well, the greater the probability of the well becoming contaminated with human waste.
Laeser went on to explain that Borchardt plans to repeat the same study in southwest Wisconsin with a team of researchers. The first round of sampling, in a project that will be completed in September of 2020, showed 42 percent of private wells tested in Iowa, Grant and Lafayette counties were contaminated.
The study’s goal is to test 500 wells randomly selected throughout the three counties. It is estimated that there are 2,199 private wells in Grant County; 5,829 in Iowa County; and 3,000 in Lafayette County. This means that a sample of 500 will represent five percent of the total approximately 11,000 private wells.
“Ultimately, the goal will be to assess a smaller subset of the tested wells that showed contamination, to identify the DNA markers which will show what chemicals or species are the source of contaminants found,” Laeser explained. “And there will also be an assessment of any impact that well construction or damage, and the surrounding geology plays in delivering contaminants into the wells.”
Laeser said that it is likely that the results in the SWIGG study will be applicable to groundwater in Crawford, Vernon and Richland counties, because the geology is very similar. But, he said, it is still very important for those counties to conduct their own testing as soon as possible.
In the near future, Laeser specified, the focus will have to be on how to fund the studies, helping people who have found contamination in their wells, and discussion and action on how to reduce contamination into the state’s groundwater in the long term.
Connie Champnoise of the Richland Stewardship Project (RSP) told participants that their group’s mission is to protect Richland County from the threat of pollution of water and other natural resources, promoting local control, and encouraging sustainable land use.
“We need citizen involvement,” Champnoise said. “Our group’s goals are for the state to move away from a one-size-fits-all manure spreading regulation; to restore local control to enact regulations; and to help ensure that water quality in all karstic areas in Wisconsin are studied.”
The group will post information about the ongoing progress with water quality initiatives and upcoming events and hearings on the web and Facebook pages. To find more information about their group, go to https://richlandstewardshipproject.com
Some water testing initiatives are already in motion in Crawford and Vernon counties. The Vernon County Board recently approved $12,000 from the county’s 2019 Ho-Chunk payment for water testing; the DATCP Producer-Led Watershed Council in the Tainter Creek Watershed tested 44 wells in the watershed in Crawford and Vernon counties in 2018, and will repeat the testing with a new group of wells in 2019; and a week ago, Crawford Stewardship Project delivered 50 water samples from across Crawford County to the CWSE in Stevens Point. They will hold an event to discuss the results, a ‘Public Drinking Water Education Event,’ on Saturday, April 27, 11 a.m., at the Crawford County Highway Department, just south of Seneca on Highway 27.