With the upper Apple River rushing by some 50 yards away, dozens of people gathered on a recent Wednesday afternoon at a chicken hatchery turned nature center in Star Prairie to learn and talk about water and its woes in Burnett, Polk, and St. Croix Counties. The Clean Water Forum organized by several organizations offered information about the region’s aquifers and bedrock, the threats posed by large-scale livestock facilities, and local efforts to prevent pollution.
For more than 100 years, the Riverwood Nature Center site was home to a chicken hatchery operated by three generations of the Utgaard family, until it closed in 2009. Then, three years ago, community members began working to convert the 35-acre site with 3,000 feet of frontage on the Apple Rive to a nature preserve and interpretive center. It has been gradually growing ever since.
Riverwood made for a natural place to discuss the latest information about water, agriculture, and stewardship.
The first speaker of the event laid the foundation for a lot of what would follow, as retired Wisconsin state geologist Ken Bradbury explained the bedrock of St. Croix County, and how its geology makes the area especially susceptible to pollution of its aquifers.
“St. Croix County groundwater is highly vulnerable to contamination from surface and near surface sources,” Bradbury said. Before retiring last year, Bradbury was a widely published hydrogeologist — a national expert in bedrock and groundwater.
Bradbury explained that one main reason for St. Croix County’s vulnerability is the presence of shallow karst features, primarily where limestone bedrock has been carved by water, creating everything from large cracks to significant caverns. Rather than slowly soaking through sandstone or other material, contaminated groundwater can travel quickly through these underground passages, and receive little filtration along the way to remove harmful substances like nitrate, a byproduct of applying fertilizer to agriculture fields.
Evidence of this is everywhere. Bradbury referred to a local lake that had disappeared more than 100 years ago when “the bottom fell out” — a sinkhole opened beneath the lake and all the water drained out. Studies related to industrial groundwater pollution near Hudson had found some groundwater traveled more than 600 feet in two days.
“We usually think of it moving inches per year,” Bradbury said.
More evidence includes a well near one major Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) in the St. Croix watershed, Emerald Sky Dairy in eastern St. Croix County. Last year, tests of water from the Town of Emerald hall, within sight of the 1,500 cow dairy operation, showed extremely elevated levels of nitrates.
Next up was Steve Oberle, a Wisconsin activist working on behalf of ecologically minded agriculture. Having previously been involved with a CAFO in Taylor County, Wis., he has been active recently with Emerald Sky Dairy. Oberle referred to Bradbury’s presentation when talking about the problems posed by massive amounts of animal waste combined with the region’s geology.
“Liquid animal manure and karst just don’t mix,” Oberle said.
Emerald Sky has caused numerous pollution problems in the past 10 years. While no one factor can be blamed for the high levels of nitrate in the Emerald town hall well, the dairy has directly caused several significant pollution incidents, including dumping manure into a wetland, and runoff reaching a trout stream, where it killed fish.
In August of this year, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources considered an application from Emerald Sky Dairy to essentially double the size of its operation. Oberle, as well as event organizer Kim Dupre, and others, spoke against the request, but the DNR says it expects to approve the expansion.
Under its new proposal, Emerald Sky would go from 1,600 to 3,300 milking cows, and from producing 17.4 million to 42.2 million gallons of manure each year. Based on the new plans, the dairy would go from having more than a year’s worth of manure storage available, to about eight months of storage. The state requires at least six months. The manure could be spread on some 5,300 acres scattered around the surrounding area.
If agriculture can be a significant source of water pollution, then farmers must be part of the solution. That’s where the work of Tara Daun and the farmer-led watershed councils she works with come in. Daun is the coordinator for the Wisconsin Farmers Union’s Farmer-Led Watershed Councils in western Wisconsin. She works with farmers in three small watersheds that ultimately flow into the St. Croix River (and one tributary to the Red Cedar River).
Protecting water and farm productivity overlap in what is called “soil health.” This typically means keep soil rich in nutrients, organic matter, and microscopic organisms. By reducing plowing and other activities to promote healthy soil, it can hold more water, reducing runoff into nearby lakes and streams, and grow more crops. With its win-win dynamic, soil health has been a priority for many of the farmers involved in the farmer-led councils.
The councils have received funding from a variety of sources over the past several years. They are currently supported by state grants that support farmers making changes to their operations to improve soil health and their impact on water.
“Our goal is not to subsidize conservation forever, but there is a cost to change,” Daun said.
The group also has some fun with their work. For her presentation, Daun stood next to a display of decomposed underwear, the results of an experiment to measure soil health. By burying cotton underwear in fields with varying soil health practices, the amount of living organisms in the soil is measured by how decomposed the underwear are. St. Croix 360 published an article by Daun about the project last year.
In 2016, St. Croix County created a committee to study groundwater issues. With all residents of the growing county depending on groundwater for drinking, and 50 percent of residents using private wells, and rising levels of contamination, officials decided it was time to consider changes to better protect their aquifers.
That’s when Tim Stieber was hired to help. Stieber presented about what the county has learned about its groundwater, and what it’s doing to keep it clean.
“You don’t see these kinds of detailed, goal-driven items developed at the local level very much,” Stieber said.
One of the county’s first tasks was to assess the condition of its groundwater. They worked with private well-owners to test water samples, and saw the situation was serious. After testing 178 wells, they found that 13 percent exceeded acceptable levels for nitrate, 10 mg/L. Stieber said there are as many people in the county drinking water above the limits as there are people with water below 1 mg/L.
He also said that St. Croix County is the second biggest source of phosphorus flowing into Lake St. Croix, sending about 133,000 pounds into the river per year. The county has been managing to reduce it by about 2,000 pounds per year.
While continuing to test and monitor well water, the county also began efforts to reduce contamination. One of their tools was using a method called LIDAR to collect high-resolution elevation maps of the landscape, which allowed them to identify more than 500 possible sinkholes. Those areas were then avoided when developing manure spreading plans.
The county has also supported initiatives like the farmer-led watershed councils to promote farming practices that reduce pollution, and several other efforts.
“There are problems, but there are a lot of people working to fix it,” Stieber told the audiece.
The final presenter was Lisa Doerr, a farmer and activist from Laketown in northern Polk County. She has been actively advocating the past several years for strong local regulation of proposed factory farms in the area, concerned about the potential impact on lakes, rivers, groundwater, and property values if proposals like Cumberland LLC’s are approved.
Doerr shared her experience working with five rural towns to pass ordinances that put rules in place for how CAFOs can operate. She said the local effort was necessary because of loose state regulations and weak enforcement — pointing out that five of the six CAFOs in the area are operating with expired DNR permits.
“The biggest [concern] being that state regulations do not address most of the concerns that people have,” she said. “Permitting that the state does only applies to water quality protection, doesn’t apply to air, or other concerns. Even that system of permitting pollution from manure has very weak enforcement.”
After Polk and Burnett Counties passed very limited ordinances to restrict CAFOs, Doerr, her neighbors, and several town officials put together a coalition of towns to research and pass their own more restrictive rules. While state law in Wisconsin greatly restricts what kinds of limits local governments can put on agriculture, it does allow for regulations that are based in science, meaning extensive “findings of facts” were required.
From those findings, the towns worked together to draft policies that would protect their citizens.
“A key part is the permittee would do a series of plans that tells the town how they’re going to operate, and then the town can hold them to those plans,” Doerr said.
After passing the ordinance, a trade group representing large businesses in Wisconsin sued Laketown to block it. Before the litigation was settled, an election replaced key town board members, the ordinance was rapidly rescinded, and the lawsuit was dropped.
But then, last month, the same group sued the state, saying the DNR doesn’t have authority to enforce CAFO regulations.
“After years of telling us that local governments can’t do it because the state is doing it, they’re now saying the state can’t do it,” Doerr said. “They view themselves as there should not be any laws that affect them at all.”
After closing remarks from organizer Kim Dupre, the forum was over, but the work continues. The nearby Apple River gets a lot of its flow from groundwater, we had learned. It races through the heart of Star Prairie, and eventually joins the St. Croix. The event was full of reminders that, in many ways, water connects people, the planet, and more.