Just after Pat Kolesar Stoltz turned 64, she bought her dream retirement home. Giant pine trees shade her driveway, wildlife abounds, and idyllic farm fields border her property in the Central Sands region of Wisconsin. In 2015, she tested her new home’s well water for nitrates, a contaminant common in the Midwest’s agricultural corridor, to ensure it was safe to drink. It was.
Now, just four years later, Stoltz is thinking about moving out. She, along with her neighbors in Wood and Juneau Counties, received notice last summer from the local health department to stop drinking from their wells. Out of the 100 or so private wells sampled in the area, 41 percent had nitrate levels above the federal standard for safe drinking water. In January, Stoltz tested her water again and was shocked to discover nitrate levels at 21 milligrams per liter—double the safe limit, and four times as high as when she purchased the home.
“I can’t imagine the water issues can ever get better in my lifetime,” says Stoltz. “Once the water’s contaminated and destroyed, how are you going to get that back? How long is it going to take to make that right?”
Stoltz is currently considering joining the 81 households that are suing the Central Sands Dairy and Wysocki Produce Farm in Nekoosa. They say the farms knowingly contaminated their drinking water—the result of the manure from 4,000 cows seeping through the earth and into the region’s groundwater. Meanwhile, the community of Saratoga, right across the Wisconsin River, is closely watching this lawsuit play out. Since 2012 Saratoga, a small town known for its clear trout streams, has been locked in a battle over a proposal by the Wysocki Family of Companies to build an even bigger, 5,000-cow dairy. This new facility, called Golden Sands, would be less than 10 miles from Wysocki’s other dairy, Central Sands.
“It’s a looking glass for us,” says Criste Greening, a community leader who is raising three kids in Saratoga. “Central Sands shows what could happen if Golden Sands comes in.”
To put it simply, the region already has too many cows for its citizens—and its ground—to handle.
On Sandy Ground
Nitrate contamination is not a problem exclusive to this part of Wisconsin. About 97 percent of the state’s communities rely on groundwater, and a 2018 report found that 284 of Wisconsin’s public water supplies and 8 percent of its private wells had unsafe nitrate levels. The source of at least 90 percent of those nitrates is agricultural runoff from fields and livestock facilities.
CAFOs, or concentrated animal feeding operations, have basically hijacked the region’s groundwater supply. Since 2007, Central Sands has spread the manure of thousands of cows on more than 7,000 acres of its farmland and neighboring fields. Using cow manure as fertilizer might sound like a good solution for dealing with waste, but we’re talking about 37.5 million gallons of manure and wastewater each year. That’s the equivalent of about 56 Olympic-size swimming pools brimming with poop—except the geology of this region causes those pools to leak. Between the ground’s shallow topsoil and its bedrock sits 80 to 100 feet of sand.
“Sand and gravel are permeable,” says George Kraft, a hydrogeologist at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point. “[Sand] doesn’t hold water well, and it doesn’t hold nutrients or pollutants well either.” Therefore, farmers in the region heavily irrigate the land, and not only manure but additives such as pesticides and fertilizer quickly percolate through.
“The fact that in 2019 some people are consistently drinking contaminated water should be upsetting and unacceptable to people,” says Evan Feinauer, a staff attorney at Clean Wisconsin who works on groundwater pollution cases. “If you spread manure at 4 p.m. and it rains at 5 p.m., you could have a contaminated well by 6 p.m.”
Taps and Stopgaps
Since the Central Sands Dairy came to town 10 years ago, local families have seen their nitrate levels rise, says Nancy Eggleston, the environmental health supervisor at the Wood County Health Department who led last summer’s water testing. And fears that the water has been causing cancer in family members and pets have helped fuel Saratoga’s protests against the proposed Golden Sands.
Eggleston says that while definitively blaming a health issue on high nitrate levels is difficult, “they do cause more health problems than blue baby syndrome,” a potentially fatal condition caused by using nitrate-contaminated water to prepare formula for infants. She points to new studies linking such contaminated water with cancer, thyroid disease, and numerous hazards to reproductive health. In a 2015 report, researchers estimated the nationwide costs of agricultural nitrates added up to $157 billion a year, including costs related to toxic algal blooms and health care.
After the contamination of Central Sands drinking water came to light, three large farms in the area, including Wysocki Produce Farm, formed the Armenia Grower’s Coalition. In a joint agreement with Wood and Juneau Counties, local health departments, and Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the coalition agreed to fund one water test, at around $30 a pop, for each of the 576 households not yet tested, and to provide bottled water to residents until the coalition installs a home water treatment system. According to the DNR, about 28 households have reached out to the coalition to request water, and of these 28 homes, 7 have received filtration systems.
“Those efforts are not a comprehensive solution to the problem,” says Breanne Snapp, an attorney for the firm filing the Central Sands suit. While some of Snapp’s clients are accepting the water, neither bottles nor filters do anything to alleviate the contamination. What’s more, the water filtration systems work only for nitrate levels under 30 milligrams per liter. According to Eggleston, some households have reported 40 to 80 milligrams per liter, for which there are no state-approved treatment systems.
“The answer would be better agricultural practices,” says Eggleston, who recommends that homeowners check their water often and is working to develop a local low-cost water testing lab. “We can’t keep adding the same things to the soil and expect different results.”
Industry, and the large companies that control it, needs to do its part, too. Along with installing state-of-the-art liners for manure lagoons and treating animal waste before applying it to fields, Valerie Baron, an NRDC attorney who works on agriculture and health issues, recommends that CAFOs monitor groundwater and soils in their surrounding area on a consistent basis. She also urges agricultural industries to consider a region’s geology when making their waste management plans.
“Human waste goes through extensive treatment. You don’t just flush your toilet and have it go into a stream,” says Baron. “The constituents of livestock wastes are very similar, and we should really be holding ourselves to the same high standard.”
In the meantime, too many Wisconsinites are navigating their daily lives without running water they can trust. Stoltz recently spent $1,500 of her own money to install a water filtration system for her kitchen faucet. The water in the rest of her house, however, remains unpotable. Stoltz, who stays busy during retirement running a breeding facility for pugs and Brussels Griffons, lugs buckets of water from her kitchen to the dog run every morning. She worries about her home’s nitrate levels going above 30 milligrams, an amount the kitchen filter can’t handle. In the summer, a crop-dusting plane buzzes directly over her roof. It’s on its way to the Wysocki-managed field across the street.
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