By Jim McKnight, submitted Feb. 26, 2022.
A watershed moment, if you’ll pardon the pun, was reached at the last Portage County Land and Water Conservation Committee (LAWCON) meeting February 1 in Stevens Point. Responding to comments from committee members and a full room of spectators including Nelsonville residents, professional hydrologists, citizens and farmers, Chair Barry Jacowski finally admitted what years of data and testimony has established on groundwater nitrate pollution, “we all know agriculture is the problem.”
While applauding the recognition of the problem finally by the chair, it is important to note that what the data also says is that not all farming methods are harmful and certain soil types can be identified as most vulnerable. A 2021 research report by the UWSP Center for Watershed Science, recognized that the Central Sands of Portage County had “the most highly susceptible conditions for nitrate concentrations in the state” because of the combination of porous sandy soils and growing methods practiced there. By far the most negative impacts measured are found on irrigated sandy soils where monocropping with potato, corn, and vegetable row crops that rely on high levels of synthetic nitrogen applications is the norm. The permeability, or ease with which water passes through sandy subsoils, also makes it a challenge to spread large quantities of manure, even over larger surface areas, without contaminating groundwater.
Which brings us back to the LAWCON meeting, and why there was a full house. The proposal before the committee was to establish a plan for monitoring wells to be installed around the Village of Nelsonville to understand the source of nitrate contamination in private wells. A study by an independent consultant in 2019, based on lab analysis of samples from polluted wells, found the source to be agricultural. However, the committee, when presented with the study, deferred to public comments challenging the results and said more information was needed.
Frustrated, residents and groundwater activists, bolstered by the lack of any scientific data challenging initial study conclusions, asked the committee to endorse a network of monitoring wells around the Village that would produce conclusive data. That information could be used to identify specific locations and activities around the Village that are most problematic and help develop specific fixes.
For the next two years, residents supplied substantial new evidence, including quarterly sampling data sorted by location and a study confirming the likely source were fields “upstream” from Village wells based on groundwater flows. Finally, the committee approved the monitoring concept and directed staff to develop a work plan for implementing. The work plan was then put out for bids, with REI Engineering, from Wausau, awarded the contract.
At the LAWCON February meeting, their preliminary proposal, prepared by County staff and REI was presented and met with serious criticism from hydrologists, committee members and citizens in attendance. County staff and REI consultants explained quickly that this initial plan was meant to solicit comments and make improvements.
Criticisms from hydrologists with decades of experience developing monitoring plans were the most pointed. First, they said, the plan lacked specific monitoring goals from the County and suggested adding language specifying vertical and lateral measurement capabilities that would answer questions about specific sources. They suggested better locations for monitoring wells, reducing the total number of wells to save costs, but providing a more balanced picture. As an example, they pointed out that an area on the east edge of the Village with the highest consistent levels of nitrates in well water did not have a monitoring well in the current plan.
See water expert Dr. George Kraft’s critique of the REI work plan here on the blog, click link.
They also recommended sampling at multiple depths to track distance and time of travel for nitrates in groundwater flow, permitting a more precise location of sources. They said data already collected under rigorous protocols like source tracking and quarterly sampling by residents should be part of the data set and was neglected in developing the plan.
Residents and committee members also supplied their own critiques, echoing the broad consensus at the meeting that the work plan as drafted was not adequate to providing answers now on pollution sources. Staff and REI consultants agreed in principle, given the clear goals and technical improvements articulated at the meeting, and will now return to incorporating the suggestions into a second phase of the plan. All agreed that the County needs to move on to solutions, prompting the chair’s remarks noted earlier.
Regenerative Agriculture as a hopeful new farming system for cleaner groundwater
As to what solutions might look like, regenerative expert and farmer, Gabe Brown was blunt in his advice at a workshop presented by Farmers for Tomorrow on February 7 in Amherst. (see more info at: https://www.csuchico.edu/regenerativeagriculture/demos/gabe-brown.shtml) Combining his 25 year experience as a North Dakota farmer with ongoing scientific research, he presented a strong case that industrial agriculture, as typified by mono-cropping with high inputs of fertilizer and pesticides, destroys healthy soils and inhibits biological systems in soils that provide nutrients to healthy plant communities without negative consequences. Instead, regenerative agriculture stresses less mechanical disturbance, keeping soil protected with cover crops, complementary and more frequent rotations, multi-species diversity in seeding for market crops and forage as well as animal integration when possible. The results have been extremely profitable because of low input costs. Brown no longer uses fertilizer, pesticides, or fungicides, on his 6500 acres, yet gets crop yields above local averages. Harmful groundwater impacts have been reduced significantly and natural plant and animal communities restored. But above all, he says, the diversity approach makes farmers more able to withstand economic and weather cycles, leading to a better quality of life.
Now on the road 280 days a year teaching these methods, he said, “I have seen these practices work from the drought prone plains of North Dakota, to the yellow clays of Ohio and the sands of the Carolina Coast. No reason they cannot work here.”
Video: Gabe Brown discusses how Regenerative Agriculture is a solution to global challenges