Citizens and environmental activists in southwestern and western Wisconsin are calling on the DNR to extend rules aimed at further protecting groundwater to their area, saying they don’t want to become “another Kewaunee County.”
The DNR has been in the process of drafting an administrative rule change to NR 151 to change policies on manure spreading practices for 15 eastern Wisconsin counties. It comes on the heels of a study on the contamination of private wells in dairy-farm intensive Kewaunee County that showed nearly 60 percent of the wells sampled contained fecal microbes.
But in southwestern and western Wisconsin, where few studies have been done, a program coordinator for environmental group Crawford Stewardship Project says that doesn’t mean protections shouldn’t be extended to areas outside of the eastern part of the state.
“We as an organization are not willing to wait until we get the well test results that they’re finding in Kewaunee County,” the coordinator, Forest Jahnke, said. “It doesn’t make sense to have to prove you’re in a groundwater and drinking water crisis before you have the authority to act and put in place a couple of protective measures.”
And some citizens feel the same way.
The DNR held a month-long public commenting period from July 7 to Aug. 7 on the environmental impact assessment — not the rules themselves. Still, 18 of the 26 respondents called for the agency to extend the rules to other parts of the state with the same geology as Kewaunee County, according to records obtained by WisPolitics.com.
That includes Kim Dupre, who listed herself as a resident of Emerald in St. Croix County. Emerald is home to the Emerald Sky Dairy, which made headlines earlier this year following a large manure spill that the farm failed to report for four months, resulting in a DNR investigation.
“I advocate for equal application of all the protections for ground water being proposed for the eastern side of the state to apply to all carbonate bedrock and karst areas,” she wrote. “Citizens on the southern and western side of the state are no less worthy of clean drinking water protections than our friends on the eastern side of the state.”
St. Croix County is one of five western and southwestern counties to have their DNR-sanctioned Conservation Congress pass resolutions this year to label those karst regions as “sensitive areas,” thus meriting special groundwater protections. In St. Croix County, the resolution, which was also proposed by Dupre, passed on a 29-6 vote in a public meeting this spring.
The other counties in that region were Crawford, Green, Iowa and Monroe. Two more central counties, Sauk and Wood, passed similar resolutions.
That part of the state has similar geology to that of northeastern Wisconsin. But in the southwestern part, there are also karst areas, which feature layers of carbonate bedrock and sandstone, which Jahnke said makes arguably one of “the best aquifers in the world.” The sandstone, he said, will take longer to become contaminated through groundwater pollution because it takes longer for water to move through it.
That’s different from northeastern Wisconsin, where thin layers of soil are spread over fractured bedrock, allowing dirty water to travel quickly to aquifers with little opportunity for filtration, although the contamination can flush out just as quickly. Jahnke said in his part of the state, if the sandstone aquifers “become polluted and undrinkable, they will never be well.”
And that’s why, some wrote, they’re not willing to wait.
That includes Vernon County resident Rebecca Comeau, who wrote residents are “concerned about potential contamination of our aquifers, and want strong measures taken now before there is further damage.”
And Camille Smith, of Crawford County, said residents in western Wisconsin are “at an even greater risk” than the northeastern part of the state, saying although the sandstone aquifers may “take longer to contaminate, but once they are, they would be irreparable.”
“At a certain point this becomes an issue of environmental justice,” she wrote. “Are only rich people allowed to drink clean water?”
DNR spokesman Jim Dick declined to respond specifically to the comments, and refused to speculate about what the process might be for potentially having the new NR 151 rules apply to an expanded number of counties.
“We prefer not to comment on any one’s specific public comment or theme of comments. The procedure is to take all public comment into consideration as we prepare the rule (or any rule) for the next round,” he said. “We will do that and then hold another public comment period on the rule itself and take those comments under consideration before a final version goes before the NRB [Natural Resources Board].”
Despite the support for enhanced protections, outside of well testing that’s been done or is underway in Iowa, Lafayette and La Crosse counties, there’s little data showing groundwater contamination.
That’s partially why, Jahnke said, the Crawford Stewardship Project’s members and volunteers have been working to map and study the karst geology in Crawford County. Their survey, which Jahnke says will be completed next year, could act as a “base layer” for other counties that have yet to conduct their own surveys, increasing the data from the region.
“We’re scrambling to get this out there, because at the end of the day we’re behind eastern Wisconsin on that front,” he said. “But I can’t tell you what it would take to expand those protections from eastern to western Wisconsin.”