Manure Is Spilling and Seeping into Wisconsin’s Waterways and Wells

As the state’s dairy farms get bigger, cow poop is polluting Lake Michigan and people’s drinking water.

Credit: iStock

Lynn Utesch doesn’t need air-conditioning. Lake Michigan, just 1.5 miles away from his Wisconsin cattle farm, usually provides all the cool breezes he needs. But on one particular hot summer day in August, the stink outside was so fetid he closed all the windows in his house and just baked.

Wisconsin is dairy country, and Utesch lives right in the heart of it. His neighbors spray manure from their dairy cows onto their land to add vital nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus to the soil. The problem is that many of those dairy farms generate so much manure that the land can’t absorb it all. When that happens, the waste seeps into the earth, where it trickles into fissures in porous rocks and then into groundwater, or it spills out of storage pits, lagoons, and pipes, polluting surface water.

Kewaunee County, where Utesch and his wife live, has the second-highest number of concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, in the state. It’s also where nitrates or E. coli, or both, from bovine sources contaminated 30 percent of private drinking water wells last year, according to tests run by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR). E. coli infections can be deadly, and high nitrate levels can lead to birth defects and blue baby syndrome, named for the tint an infant’s skin takes on when the contaminant deprives the blood of oxygen. The Wisconsin Department of Health Services has investigated a number of blue baby syndrome cases, finding at least three tied to nitrates in drinking water, and is expecting nitrate concentrations in aquifers to increase. (So far, the Utesches’ well has not been among those with high nitrate levels or E. coli.)

Cattle waste makes its mark above ground, too. Just last February in southwestern Wisconsin, a spill sent between 30,000 and 120,000 gallons of manure into Castle Rock Creek. When excess manure washes into water bodies, Lake Michigan for example, it can trigger algae blooms. As the algae die and sink to the bottom, the bacteria that eat them flourish, deoxygenating the water and creating a dead zone in which fish and other aquatic life suffocate.

Every year a dead zone forms in Green Bay, and these have lasted up to 69 days. Agriculture is not the only contributor to the Green Bay dead zone. According to the state DNR, municipal and industrial wastewater, as well as city sewage and runoff from lawns, also contributes phosphorus to Lake Michigan. But 46 percent of the water contaminant comes from farms. Green mats of algae coat the lake’s sandy shores, and the state regularly closes beaches due to E. coli contamination.

“It definitely has an impact on everybody’s quality of life in our area,” says Utesch. For his own part, Utesch rotates the grazing fields on his 150-acre farm so his cows don’t overload the land with manure. He and his wife also founded Kewaunee CARES, a community advocacy group focused on environmental stewardship, five years ago. “We just felt that to create public awareness we needed to start an organization,” he says.

Bigger, But Not Better

A large dairy farm in Wisconsin
Credit: BanksPhotos/iStock

All across Wisconsin, dairy farms are growing larger. More accurately, the farms are consolidating because it’s increasingly hard to turn a profit as a small operation. Because those big farms are pushing land prices higher, renting property to grow feed and raise cows has become more expensive for the little guy. The price of milk is decreasing, too. Over the past year, the cost of a hundredweight of milk (an industry standard equivalent to 12 gallons) has fallen an average of $3. Bigger commercial farms can more easily absorb rising costs and receive more government subsidies.

Data from the Wisconsin DNR show that over the past decade, the number of farms with 500 cows or more has climbed 150 percent. In Kewaunee County alone, the number of dairy cows has increased 34 percent from 1983. More cows, of course, means more manure. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a farm with 2,500 dairy cows produces as much waste as a city of 411,000 people.

This isn’t just a Wisconsin thing. The swelling of CAFOs is trending across the country. The Chicago Tribune recently published a series of articles on the growth of pig farms in Illinois, the fourth-largest pork-producing state, describing manure spills that washed into streams and killed fish. “It looked like ink, the water. It had fish all over the place, dead. It wasn’t fit for nothing. Not even a wild animal could drink out of it,” a retired farmer told the reporter. In North Carolina, a new mapping project documents 6,500 industrial hog and chicken farms and their devastating health impacts on the state’s residents and waters.

Laws regulating CAFOs vary by state. Wisconsin requires every farm with more than 1,000 animal units—a formula that counts cows by poundage (1 unit for every 1,000 pounds) to account for the smaller impacts of calves—submit a nutrient management plan to the state DNR that details its manure disposal methods. Even so, the state’s waterways are still full of poop. For instance, 80 percent of Kewaunee County is under a nutrient management plan. Utesch says if the regulations were working, “we would have the cleanest water in the country.”

Managing Mass Manure

Why aren’t manure management plans working? To start, they focus on how much fertilizer is ideal for growing crops, not for keeping pollutants out of the water, says Elizabeth Wheeler of Clean Wisconsin, an environmental nonprofit that partners with NRDC. Further, nonpoint source runoff, which includes runoff from fields treated with manure, is largely exempt from Clean Water Act regulations. The DNR, which declined to comment for this article, doesn’t even have the resources to enforce state regulations already in place, Utesch says.

For decades environmental groups like NRDC have been warning of the threats posed by spraying liquid fertilizer over fields. In 2001, NRDC published a report called “Cesspools of Shame,” which dove into the health consequences of mass manure and its potential legal fixes. More recently, environmental groups pushing the EPA to more closely regulate the spraying have seen some progress, but typically only after a judge forces the agency to act.

For instance, in a case brought against the EPA in 2013, a judge ruled that the manure from dairy cows poses a significant risk to drinking water of residents in Washington’s Yakima Valley. After the ruling, the EPA finally stepped in to work with Yakima’s farmers to check groundwater, develop manure application plans, and test soil, among other efforts to curb nitrate pollution.

Clean Wisconsin, along with Kewaunee CARES and Midwest Environmental Advocates, another environmental nonprofit that works on legal solutions, tried a similar approach in Kewaunee County in 2014. They petitioned the EPA, asking the agency to ensure the provision of safe drinking water, to identify why nitrate pollution was plaguing wells, and to hold the polluters legally accountable. As a result, the EPA worked with the state DNR to form four working groups that eventually came up with 65 consensus recommendations, such as overseeing manure applications on vulnerable lands and adding more DNR staff positions to handle that overseeing. After those came out in August, the DNR began looking at areas throughout Wisconsin that are sensitive to nutrient overload to figure out where to start.

“It’s sort of like triage in a way,” Wheeler says. “You need to take care of the most critical needs first, and right now people in Wisconsin are without clean drinking water.”

The EPA is also now looking into the DNR’s oversight of the Clean Water Act and could force the agency to implement more of those recommendations. In the meantime, farmer-led councils could help clean the water—or at least keep it from getting dirtier—by developing better manure disposal techniques. Stricter laws wouldn’t hurt, either. Utesch says small changes in the regulations, like testing for E. coli, an indicator of manure, would even help. “We have a great potential for harm here,” he says, “especially when you have that much waste.”

Eventually we may know a lot more about how much manure the land can handle before reaching poop capacity. Until then, Utesch will have to just keep testing his well―and closing his windows.

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