Does our Land and Water Conservation Committee serve the interests of 77% of its constituents? (Portage County, WI)

Lisa Anderson
Nelsonville, WI, resident, citizen, clean water advocate for Portage County, WI

Please share my concerns with others. Nelsonville residents, Portage County Board of Supervisors, and other impacted parties are copied on this email.

I compiled the notes below in the fall of 2020. It is relevant again following an absolutely horrendous Land and Water Conservation Committee meeting last night. This committee has to change; this county board has to be fixed so that it represents the will of most of the people in the county and not just a few with powerful connections. In April of 2021, the question was put to the voters of Portage County: Should the State of Wisconsin establish a right to clean water to protect human health, the environment, and the diverse cultural and natural heritage of Wisconsin? Portage County residents responded with a resounding YES: 77% of constituents of the county board believe clean water is a right.

I am not an activist. I am an advocate, as are many other Nelsonville residents, for safe drinking water at the source for our private wells. It’s not an attempt to put any farm out of business. Clearly more nitrogen is being used in the village’s recharge zone than is sustainable for our sandy soils and sensitive aquifer. We simply want different land management practices on those fields that impact our wells. Our health and lives should matter more than maximizing yield on continuous corn, or any practice that isn’t protective of groundwater. We are told continually that farmers don’t apply more nitrogen than they have to, manure is better than commercial fertilizer, and the ideas that GCAC puts forward are unworthy or unworkable for one reason or another. And yet, the village continues to see high levels of nitrate contamination in our drinking water. The Jacowskis have the power to do what they want. The chair allowed the Gordon’s environmental technical memo to be included in correspondence and talked about at the meeting, but despite my request to have the source document for that memo included, and the document that answers the egregiously distorted conclusions made by that firm (GZA), Barry Jacowski declined to let it in. Matt Jacowski tried to embarrass me for questioning our county conservationist’s influence on the REI draft work plan for monitoring wells.

One only needs to compare the first version with the revised version to see that REI felt they needed to change the recommendation from a reasonable and true monitoring plan to a plan with shallow wells which provide no definition of the nitrate plume in the aquifer. I want constituents, and members of the county board, to consider whether there is a conflict of interest that exists on this committee. Do members of this committee benefit financially from the decisions they make, or obstruction they facilitate? Why doesn’t our county have a code of ethics for supervisors which discloses financial and other interests? I don’t know if there is a conflict of interest, but that’s why codes of ethics exist. From my time as clerk in the village, I know this is common practice in many elected positions in local government. Public officials should recuse themselves from discussions when they or their family members benefit from a decision they are charged with making. Portage County should be a leader in natural resource protection given our College of Natural Resources and the water scientists who make this their home. Instead, we have some of the worst nitrate contamination in the state in private and municipal wells. There is nothing wrong with our wells. There is something wrong with the shared resource that is our groundwater.

When supervisors try to embarrass us, please keep in mind my, and many other residents’, thyroid disease, Mark Medow’s large cell follicular lymphoma, Katy Bailey’s miracle baby, and more cancer than I can get my head around. From a local midwife: Nelsonville was known in her practice to have five times the miscarriage rate as surrounding areas. We are not making this up and this is not a game to us.

Kudos to our outgoing County Executive Chris Holman who found funding for the monitoring plan that REI was awarded, and County Water Specialist Jen McNelly for her ongoing efforts to raise awareness of the problem. My previous compilation on the state of county inaction/obstruction follows (as the assertion was made last night that this committee doesn’t have a problem with a tied vote that obstructs progress):

The Land and Water Conservation Committee was created through state statute which required all counties to carry out their responsibilities for conserving soil, water and related natural resources. Conservation programs can be developed which manage manure and nutrient applications, plan for future land use, and manage and protect groundwater. We observe a clear bias from committee leadership and the county conservationist to protect agricultural interests over protecting the safety of groundwater. The county has known about the problem for decades including in 1992 when “Jacowski asked how to prevent contamination when agricultural lands are present within a wellhead area,” and “We recognize that each private well has its own wellhead protection area.” In 1992 it was recorded that “More can be done with education than regulation.” This is the exact same assertion we heard from the county conservationist. Education over regulation has allowed contamination to occur without restraint over the decades. The committee leadership and the county conservationist have moved from inaction for protecting water to actual obstruction to protecting water.

NOTES from the history:

6/28/16 Joint LWCC, P&Z, Ag/Ext meeting regarding the Farmland Preservation Plan:

·        Discussion around groundwater included that the Board of Supervisors would have to make policy decisions in the Groundwater Management Plan that don’t conflict with the Farmland Preservation Plan. Later in the minutes, Schuler (?) said “other policies can focus on how zoning regulations can stay out of the way of farming to a certain degree, or the type of land use patterns you’d like to advocate to allow farming to be viable in unincorporated areas.”

·        Schuler: “There is a need to educate everyone in the County about the importance of the agriculture… There are always going to be those that think agriculture gets in the way or it consumes resources that it shouldn’t.” “Schuler emphasized, for the supervisors that haven’t been part of the conversation, this is not a document meant to regulate the agriculture industry… it’s meant to describe it, find a way to support it, and advocate for it. The County is not going to tell anyone what to plant, where to plant, how to plant; just like we’re not going to tell people what do with their water through the GMP… finding ways to accommodate and support it.”

9/29/16 LWCC meeting regarding Town of New Hope residents’ concerned about high capacity wells and CAFOs: 

·        Bradley and McNelly “directed the residents to channel concerns and/or potential county-wide ordinance suggestions through the GCAC, which will be considered by the Agriculture and Extension Education, Land and Water Conservation, and Planning and Zoning Committees, and finally, the County Board.”

·        When this conversation-starting ordinance came to LWCC in August of 2018, “B. Jacowski said it is his understanding that the only way this ordinance goes forward, statutorily, is to come through the LWCC.” Then the motion failed on a tied vote.

·        It is our observation that residents are to direct their concerns to GCAC, recommendations from GCAC come before LWCC, and then they are voted down.

5/30/17 Groundwater Protection Ordinance Subcommittee meeting:

·        McKnight asked if there has been any water testing done prior to and after having manure structures/spreading. Bradley stated Portage County has not done that as it is expensive.

·        Bradley stated there is something you can do if you are a frustrated rural residential homeowner, and that is to install a recirculating sand filter to minimize the nitrates coming from your own septic system.

 2/27/18 P&Z meeting discussion concerning proposed Groundwater Protection Ordinance:

·        B. Jacowski stated they do not want to be drug into court.

·        Arntsen referenced Wisconsin Statute 92.11, and stated County citizens can vote to give the County power to enforce what the State is not, and they are looking for the committees to work out the details.

5/8/18 LWCC meeting discussion on Citizen Appointments to the LWCC:

·        B. Jacowski feels the LWCC should remain all elected officials.

·        Arntsen said State Statutes Chapter 92 indicates that two citizen members may be appointed to the LWCC… Corporation Counsel replied the County Ordinances are not currently set up for citizen members on LWCC. Arntsen said the Ordinance can be changed…

·        Motion by B. Jacowski, second by O’Brien to leave the Committee as all elected officials for the LWCC.

·        Zastrow supports having someone with Arntsen’s experience and knowledge to reference on issues… B. Jocowski said the committee has not turned away anyone’s expertise or advice.

·        He feels strongly that people that have been elected have to be accountable.

·        Committees are appointed every two years and he is concerned someone with a personal agenda could be appointed.

·        The vote was called. Aye votes [to keep committee as is] by B. Jacowski, Bacon, O’Brien. Nay votes by B. Gifford, Morrow, Zastrow. Tied motion failed.

6/27/18 P&Z meeting discussion around McNelly/Garske DNR letter regarding Gordondale Farms:

·        Schuler provided members with a letter that was written by Jen McNelly and Gary Garske to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) about Gordondale Farms Wisconsin Pollution Discharge Elimination System Permit (letter on file). Haga asked if there was anything in our ordinance based on herd size that would require monitor wells be installed on farms as a precautionary measure. Schuler replied all of the recent planning that we have done talks about monitoring and awareness of current groundwater quality conditions, and stated further discussion is part of the 3 committee meeting. B. Jacowski stated this should have come before the committees before the letter was created. Schuler replied it is part of McNelly’s job description, and it was due prior to any scheduled meeting. Gussel asked if the State is involved with monitoring. Schuler replied no, but this monitoring effort is something we want to discuss at the 3 committee meeting in July. Morrow stated the letter was very well addressed, researched, summarized, and written, and asked B. Jacowski if he disagrees with what was said. B. Jacowski replied no, but there have been problems in the past with staff testimony/personal opinions and it not being the opinion of the committees. Schuler stated this was signed by staff, and not on behalf of the committees.

6/27/18 In this timeframe, Barry Jacowski called the DNR regarding the request made by staff to require monitoring wells at the Gordondale Farm. Mark Kaczorowski: “I received a call from Mr. Jacowski from the Portage County Board and he informed me that the letter you referenced should not have been sent on behalf of Portage County as the staff did not have approval to do so. He said that it should be treated as a comment from an individual person, not a unit of government.”

 7/24/18 P&Z meeting discussion on the Portage County Wellhead Protection Ordinance Map Amendments:

·        “B. Jacowski asked the age of the model… Schuler stated this is the standard in the industry for defining these areas… B. Jocowski added that is also an old model. McNelly replied it is an existing model.”

·        “Morrow stated 2 months ago we were opposed to the extension of municipal water in the Town of Hull; therefore, we should be doing everything possible to protect the groundwater. If the “red circles” mapped are questionable, we should err on the side of caution if we have no intention of extending municipal water. B. Jacowski replied Morrow is not taking into consideration the private property owners in that area. Morrow stated if water specialists are telling us this is the direction of groundwater flow and where we should be careful, that seems logical. This seems very well done and researched, and if we are not going to have a long term government plan to provide municipal water to areas where nitrates are rising, then why not be as careful as possible. B. Jacowski replied he is unsure if it was well researched since he asked if there was field data collected to calibrate the model, and it was an unknown. Morrow stated this is a long existing model that water specialists use to find risky spots where you should be careful of what you put on your ground. Morrow stated she believes them and feels this should be passed as we need to be as careful as humanly possible with what we are putting in the ground, especially if these homeowners will never be offered municipal water. B. Jacowski replied that is well taken from a person whom does not own property out there. Morrow replied it would not matter if she owned that property or not.”

·        “B. Jacowski asked if Andrew Aslesen is State certified. McNelly replied yes, he works for Wisconsin Rural Water Association (WRWA). B. Jacowski asked for his credentials. McNelly stated she was unsure offhand what his credentials are, but this is what he was hired to do.” (Andrew Asleson’s credentials:   BS in Geography with a Geology emphasis from UW Whitewater and an MS in Water Resources Management with a hydrogeology emphasis from UW-Madison. Worked with WI Geological and Natural History Survey and is the Source Water Specialist with WI Rural Water Association since 2010).

8/7/18 LWCC motion to move forward with the Public Health and Groundwater Protection Ordinance failed on a tied vote. This vote ended further discussion on the document and did not allow it to be considered by the full county board.

·        GCAC’s recommendations to Ag/Ext, LWCC, and P&Z Committees: That policies be developed and enacted to address the noted increasing nitrate concentration in Portage County groundwater that exceeds safe drinking water standards. We also recommend that all contributors to nitrate in groundwater be included in these policies in countywide education and in voluntary actions.

·        Moving forward with this ordinance was viewed by some committee members and others addressing the problem with nitrate concentration was that the document was “a good starting point,” “a baby step,” “we’ve known about this problem for decades and have done little to address it,” as a nurse who cares for cancer patients, “this is a moral issue,” “What is the worth of the health of everyone in the County?… It is a moral issue,” “Keep in mind that the public health is the top issue.”

The opposing view from the county conservationist was that he “could not find one [regulation in the document] that would improve or reduce nitrates in the groundwater” and that “Some of them would actually be worse for groundwater.” We believe this is demonstrably not true. His suggestion was also that there was cost of a NMP for farmers in the county with the implication being that it wasn’t reasonable to put that on the farmer. It is our belief that NMPs could and should be devised to protect groundwater.

2/26/19 P&Z meeting discussion on wellhead protection ordinance:

·        B. Jacowski stated we have tried to protect our water in the past and then the property gets annexed to the City and they do what they want anyways. B. Jacowski stated he is concerned with limiting taxable improvements.

10/9/19 P&Z meeting discussion on groundwater issues with Arntsen providing a summary of the Tomorrow River Chautauqua Drinking Water Quality informational meeting:

·        Arntsen, “The question now is what can agriculture and land users in the area do to help reduce the nitrate concentrations in the Village wells? The Village is working with farmers. A cooperatigve effort is needed to address the situation.”

·        “Bradley stated one of the farmers with fields close to the Village has voluntarily seeded the fields in alfalfa which fixes nitrogen from the atmosphere versus corn fields where nitrogen is applied. Arntsen said even with good practices, the issue remains.”

The onus is always on residents to prove there is a problem and that agricultural land use is the source of the problem. Even when scientific data is brought before the committee and county conservationist, it is discredited and denied. Our motives are questioned. The scientists’ opinions are discounted and their credentials are questioned. Residents are repeatedly grilled by committee leadership about the source of their information while the ag representatives are pitied and allowed to make assertions without being challenged. The county conservationist refuses to focus on agricultural land management practices and instead zeroes in on potential contamination from septic on a few wells — while it is well-documented that the great majority of wells only have agricultural tracers in the water.  We would like the entire county board to be made aware of the problems that exist on the Land and Water Conservation Committee and the Planning and Zoning Committee from our perspective. What kind of county do we want? Will people want to live here with the unabated contamination of groundwater in private wells? We have some of the best water scientists and research in the state right here in our county, yet we have a perpetual and increasing problem of undrinkable water. Residents are bearing the cost individually and on their own. It’s time for county leadership to take action to protect our resources for all residents.