“It’s an Ill Wind”- ChaqTalk for April 2022 on Portage Co. Groundwater Issues

It’s an Ill Wind
-By Jim McKnight, Nelsonville/Town of New Hope area WI

Hello all, 

Here is the monthly groundwater report for Portage County, documenting the continued resistance by some County officeholders to discuss and implement strategies for reducing groundwater pollutants. 

With countywide elections coming April 5, it is paramount to elect candidates to the County Board and  County Executive that acknowledge the problem exists and are willing to work towards solutions. 

Recently, a decision by the DNR to require groundwater monitoring as a condition for a Kewaunee CAFO permit and actions taken by townships in Central and Southwest WI to require accountability from operators for ag pollutants provide the templates for action. Why not in Portage County?

As always, please forward  to any appropriate contacts.

Respectfully submitted, Jim McKnight – Town of New Hope

Decades ago, somebody wrote, “You don’t need a weatherman to see which way the wind blows”. Likewise, you don’t need to be a savant to see how the lack of progress on resolving groundwater pollution has been stage-managed for decades in Portage County.

There have been many parties to this stalemate, most visibly, the autocratic nature and leadership of the Land and Water Committee (LAWCONN). The full County Board and its chair share equal responsibility by consistently failing to appoint a more balanced membership that takes its statutory obligation “to protect and enhance” the waters of Portage County seriously. And County Conservation staff have been lax pressing for better land management practices and stewardship grants, choosing instead to question pollutant sources despite overwhelming science to the contrary.

The obstructive actions of the first guilty party, LAWCONN, has been well documented in this column for years. In 2019, for example, the chair of the committee personally called the DNR to recommend that monitoring wells be removed from CAFO permit requirements for the dairy operation suspected of polluting Nelsonville private wells. The monitoring wells had been requested by County Health and Groundwater staff and DNR scientists to identify specific farming practices responsible for pollutants.

See New Report Finds Not Enough Land to Safely Dispose of CAFO Manure in Northeast Wisconsin and Central Sands

Monitoring wells still offer a path forward in Nelsonville. Federal funds are available to cover any financial losses that result from changing management practices that result in better water quality. Last summer, bid proposals for a system that would provide the data necessary to acquire those grants was approved after years of scientific evidence and public pressure. The environmental firm, REI, was chosen to develop the plan.

But when REI’s plan for monitoring wells was publicly revealed at a February 2022 LAWCONN meeting, questions began to be raised about study goals. Groundwater scientists pointed out that plan specifications were severely flawed with monitoring well locations designed to obscure results, instead of reflecting current science to clearly identify nitrate sources and meet data requirements for remediation grants. For example, the plan did not include monitoring at multiple depths, critical to assess the distance pollutants have travelled, nor any wells in the area with the highest level of nitrates.

The picture was further sullied when REI’s original proposal for well locations, made to County staff months earlier for review, was revealed. The original plan was in line with accepted groundwater science including multiple depths and high nitrate areas. This development raised the obvious question: who was responsible for changes in monitoring specs from the original proposal to the second version. It was a dramatic change, a hydrologist with thirty years monitoring experience declared, “Frankly, if I were to bias a monitoring network to intentionally underestimate agricultural impact, while attempting to appear as if I were doing something useful, this is what I would put forward.”

The role of the Portage County Conservationist in those early discussions with REI has come under scrutiny. In Portage County that position oversees nutrient applications and waste storage and works with farmers to adjust management practices when problems arise. They work under the County Planning and Zoning director with funding provided directly by DATCAP (Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection) and are generally seen as advocates for commercial agriculture. The degree to which the individual Conservationist prioritizes that advocacy and affects activities like efforts to maintain clean groundwater varies widely in different Counties.

For example, a comparison between the Conservationist priorities in Waupaca and Portage Counties is noteworthy. While Waupaca County in 2021 requested and received $50,000 in funding for outreach nutrient management plans and additional innovation grants to implement improvements in land and water conservation through cost sharing with farmers, Portage County requested and received none. The argument by Portage County staff is that farmers won’t accept that kind of regulation, but to not offer it seems disingenuous given it’s a state law to protect water quality.

Instead, working with LAWCONN leadership, the Portage County Conservationist has consistently defended agricultural practices in groundwater discussions. In Nelsonville, for example, they pushed narratives that septic systems were responsible for well pollution and monitoring wells would be inconclusive about sources. An independent analysis of 2019 test results in Nelsonville disproved the septic claim. Thirty years of accepted monitoring results in State and Portage County cases, refute the second claim.

For legitimate skeptics, a well-designed monitoring well system around the Village, like the initial REI plan, would offer solid results and templates for action. The altered plan presented at LAWCONN, would produce ambiguous results. Questions remain how that process unfolded, but activists hope a forthcoming version from REI will restore the legitimate standards.

The full County Board and chairman share complicity on groundwater inaction, not just responsible for committee makeup, but actively stymying discussion. A March Exec Ops Committee meeting was a perfect example. A motion to add a seventh member to LAWCONN and break 3-3 ties that have blocked proposals for years failed to get a second from the five members and was tabled without discussion. Even though the proposal was not expected to pass, refusing to even allow a public discussion of LAWCONN dysfunction and lack of initiatives to protect County groundwater was striking. For the crowd of residents waiting to speak, including Nelsonville residents who have spent years patiently working through the system, it was another denial of democracy.

They could tell which way the wind was blowing.