Liquid manure spreader. Source: Wikimedia Commons

New results from a study on the contamination of private wells in Kewaunee County leaves stakeholders hopeful for stronger rules to protect drinking water.

They also include an estimate of how many people are getting sick from their well water, a result that activists such as Amber Meyer Smith, of Clean Wisconsin, said should help people “realize the magnitude of the problem.”

The study, done in collaboration with UW-Oshkosh and the USGS Wisconsin Water Science Center, centered on the dairy-farm intensive northeastern county, where residents have long been raising concerns over groundwater pollution. Its results were presented Wednesday night in Luxemburg.

Among the new findings are an estimate that 140 people and 1,700 cattle are getting sick from private wells contaminated with cryptosporidium in Kewaunee County every year.

“Are people getting sick? Yes they are,” said Mark Borchardt, a microbiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and one of the researchers who participated in the DNR-funded study.

He said those who get infected would experience severe diarrhea, and it could be fatal to people with already weak immune systems.

In order to calculate those numbers, Borchardt said he performed a risk assessment, taking the number of wells contaminated with cryptosporidium, and then determining the contamination rate and the number of people exposed to those wells, before ultimately calculating the total number of infections per year.

Overall, Borchardt said it was “really surprising” to see cryptosporidium in the groundwater to begin with.

Rep. Joel Kitchens, whose district includes Kewaunee County, said the estimates represent “a very serious health concern.” He also noted that researchers had only looked at sickness resulting from one pathogen to arrive at those results, adding that if others were included, it’s likely the number would go up.

Borchardt said prior to the study’s release, there had been a debate across the county over whether manure or septic systems were behind the well pollution.

While one of the team’s research objectives was to solve that debate, Borchardt said they were “amazed” by the results.

They show that the source of well contamination changes depending on the season; in the spring and fall, private wells were largely contaminated with manure, but at other times, the contamination came from humans.

That’s because during a groundwater recharge, a time when groundwater levels rise due to rain or melting snow, for example, water from the surface carries manure downward. But in the summer, Borchardt said, much of the well contamination comes from septic systems, as the groundwater levels fall.

In all, researchers tested 131 wells over five sampling periods ranging from April 2016 to March 2017, and found that 40 of them had evidence of bovine manure, 29 had evidence of human wastewater and seven wells registered both.

While faulty septic systems have been a source of blame in the well contamination debate, Davina Bonness, who heads the Kewaunee County Land & Water Conservation Department, said the county’s zoning department has been working to update the septic systems countywide. As of March, she said 80 percent of the county’s approximately 4,800 systems were in compliance.

Kitchens, R-Sturgeon Bay, called the results showing the presence of human waste in contaminated wells “a little bit eye opening.”

“There is a lot more contamination from bad septic systems than people previously thought,” he said.

Still, Clean Wisconsin’s Smith cautioned against losing sight of “the main part of the problem that is really making people sick,” manure.

On that front, Don Niles, a dairy farmer in Kewaunee County who leads a nonprofit group called Peninsula Pride Farms that’s working to lessen the impact of manure on both groundwater and surface water, said Borchardt’s research would help inform what initiatives the group will undertake.

“As farmers, it’s our job to control what we can control, which is farming practices,” Niles said.

He pointed to a few key findings, including the recharge times, that could help give the group direction to keep water safe while fostering a strong agricultural community in the county.

Niles said farmers largely applied manure when there weren’t crops growing, in the fall and spring. But he said the group was looking at and experimenting with new techniques, including one to apply liquid manure to growing crops that could help reduce the contamination.

Activists and other stakeholders, meanwhile, are waiting on action from the Department of Natural Resources for a rule change aimed at better protecting private wells and drinking water.

The DNR is expected to soon release an updated administrative rule dealing with groundwater issues. The department hosted a series of meetings from last October through March with stakeholders, where potential changes to the rule were discussed.

Bonness, who attended the NR 151 meetings, said she hoped the results would show state officials that “we need stricter rules.”

“It’s going to show that the current regulations are not working and not sufficient,” she said.

And Smith said the rule has the “potential to be a very strong step forward,” although she added it’s “imperative that DNR comes out with strong rules.”

Kitchens said he anticipates the new rules to be out “within the month,” and from there he’ll work to make sure it’s “protecting the groundwater adequately,” including regulating not only how much manure can be spread but also when.

Meanwhile, the next step for the research team is to begin data analysis, Borchardt said. That would help them determine, for example, which factor was most important in the contamination of wells. That process will be ongoing for the next few months, he said, followed by the writing of a manuscript.

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