Kewaunee County residents will gather at the county fairgrounds Thursday evening to learn from a scientist why so many of their wells have been contaminated.
Mark Borchardt is a USDA microbiologist who's been studying the problem for years. In 2017, more than 60% of randomly selected Kewaunee County wells contained fecal microbes. They can come from humans – through septic systems – or animals.
“What I’m not going to do today is go through the same sort of thing you’ve seen before: the hydrogeology of Kewaunee County, the issue about septic systems versus cattle ... We’re going to cut to the chase,” he said at a recent Kewaunee County Land & Water Conservation Committee meeting.
He was supposed to be giving the group a preview of his “Risk Factors for Private Well Contamination in Kewaunee County” presentation. Residents showed up in droves.
Kewaunee’s land and water are complicated systems. In some areas, top soil barely covers the surface. Whether thin or plentiful, the bedrock below is fractured. That allows contaminants to more easily make their way down to the groundwater.
Over the years, some residents have blamed well contamination to failing septic systems, others to manure on the county’s dairy-dense landscape.
Borchardt set out to find out what increases the chance that a well would be contaminated.
“We can look at agricultural things, like ag fields, manure storage. We can look at septic systems. And when we look at these we can look at the distance from a well to these risk factors,” Borchardt says.
The scientist says there are layers of risks, including:
- The higher the number of septic systems located near a well, the greater the probability that the well will become contaminated.
- The closer a private well is located to manure storage, such as a lagoon, the greater the risk for contamination.
County conservation committee member Aaron Augustian describes Borchardt’s study as interesting, but adds farmers are doing their part to mitigate risks. Augustian owns a large dairy concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO).
“We have been practicing cover crops the last at three to four years. Our farm is part of a demonstration farms network put on by the state — NRCS, DATCP. So, we try these new practices on the farm and on the land,” Augustian adds, “And we measure results to see if we can lessen the surface water and groundwater contamination with some of the practices we do.”
Augustian says a new law also sets limits on where and how farmers in fragile areas like Kewaunee can spread manure. He says it’s premature to consider more rules for farmers.
“We can’t just keep passing regulations and ordinances without measuring the ones we have already put in place already,” he says.
Fellow committee member Lee Luft has fundamental concerns that he says are based on sheer volume.
“The county’s farming community applies about 700 million gallons of liquid manure every year. That’s equivalent to the human waste from cities such as Minneapolis, added to Des Moines, added to Milwaukee, added to Green Bay,” Luft says. “It’s as if we were taking the waste stream from those very large cities and in some cases that application is happening over very vulnerable land with shallow soils and fractured bedrock."
Luft applauds the efforts of farmers like Aaron Augustian but has an immediate next step in mind: “I would like to see ... monitoring wells in strategic areas especially in areas where we know we have the shallowest soils covering fractured bedrock,” he says.
Concerned citizens have been waiting for one large farm to install monitoring wells since 2014. That’s when an administrative judge ordered their installation as a condition of the large dairy’s expansion.
The state Supreme Court is expected to hear the case later this year. Byt Lynda Cochart, who lives near the farm and whose well was contaminated, says she’s almost given up hope of change.
“I see manure haulers going everywhere. It’s hard to turn on the faucet and use it. I’ve totally lost my trust – have to do a lot more for my trust,” Cochart says.
Microbiologist Mark Borchardt hopes walking Kewaunee County residents and elected officials through his scientific deep dive will lead to sound policy.
"Now, you can start thinking about things like setback distances, allowable densities of septic systems. You can start thinking about things like whether manure lagoons really do leak or don’t they – that’s what the value of this is in my opinion,” Borchardt says.
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