Who is the victim?
Efforts to restore clean drinking water to Portage County rural well owners began in 1992, when a UW-Stevens Point research study first identified specific agricultural practices responsible for rising nitrate levels seen in groundwater samples. Thirty years later, after many subsequent sampling studies involving private and municipal wells, that fact has been repeatedly confirmed. The latest, a UWSP 2022 study based on thousands of well samples, found 94% of nitrates in County groundwater come from mostly large areas planted frequently in corn and potatoes. Those crops require high applications of nitrogen, but do not efficiently metabolize those inputs, allowing nitrates to pass through sandy soils into groundwater readily.
In that same timeframe, negative health effects of high nitrates have become well documented. They range from pregnancy complications including miscarriages, thyroid disease, early childhood development problems, and higher rates of specific cancers.
Fast forward to 2019, when County testing in the Village of Nelsonville revealed dangerous nitrate levels in over half of the Village wells, and an independent study confirmed agricultural sources for the pollutants. For the next three years, residents, groundwater scientists, and supporters from throughout the County, used those irrefutable results to ask County authorities to establish monitoring wells in Nelsonville as a test case. Data collected would provide information on where safe water might be found in that aquifer and help assess changes to land use that would improve groundwater quality. It would also offer valuable information on how to address many similar problems in the County. After much debate and citizen and scientist pressure, the Land and Water Conservation Committee (LAWCON) approved a monitoring plan, designed by an independent consultant, in August 2022.
Federal ARPA funds were supposed to provide money for the monitoring but when those funds were frozen and still not released by November, Supervisor Lionel Weaver proposed an amendment to the County budget on November 1 to use County contingency funds to fund the project if ARPA funding fell through.
That was approved by the full Board on a 13-11 vote. Two days later, County Executive John Pavelski vetoed that measure stating that “Capital improvement projects are designed to fund projects that benefit the County as a whole, for all citizens that are affected and/or have access to what those funds are used for.” That the monitoring would only benefit a small group is certainly debatable, given acknowledgement from County staff, Board members, and private groundwater experts that it will provide valuable information to a County-wide problem.
On November 15, the Board failed to override the County Executive’s veto, 13-12, with several dissenters citing the likelihood that ARPA funds would soon be approved and move the project forward. ARPA funding decisions began at the Finance Committee meeting November 28.
What is most disturbing about current Board level discussions on the monitoring project is that they continue the process of misinformation and lack of accountability that has plagued groundwater discussions since 1992. How that dissemination process could still be ongoing is puzzling, given the vast scientific evidence of nitrate and other pollution from production agriculture and the willingness of several local farm groups embracing more sustainable alternatives.
For an explanation, look no further than a statement submitted to the Board before the vote on contingency funds, written by a consortium of powerful, Madison-based lobbyists, including Manufacturers and Commerce, Wisconsin Dairy Alliance, and Venture Dairy Cooperative. It reveals that the gridlock of misinformation and community divisiveness has roots far beyond our County borders and residents.
The full document can be accessed through the November 1 County Board meeting packet, but here are some highlights:
“Testing data makes it clear that the primary cause of nitrate contamination in the Village is well condition.”
False: Pollutants were found in deep and shallow wells and across a broad range of installation dates.
“Residents in the Village have yet to utilize any of the programs available to them. They have been offered no-cost R.O. Systems from the County, and free water offered through the church.”
False: Eight families have already applied for well mitigation funds and several wait for estimates from well drillers to be completed before they can apply for funds. The mitigation funding process has been slow Countywide, with only one resident awarded any funds to date. In addition, R.O. systems have been purchased and installed by residents, but in several cases, have failed to supply safe water because nitrates levels are higher than these systems can filter.
“The issue in Nelsonville is a very specific anti-agricultural agenda.”
False: To label the right of a person to have access to clean drinking water as “against” anyone is twisted logic and counter to citizen guarantees in the Wisconsin State Constitution. Wisconsin law has clearly held industries accountable for activities that negatively affected public health in the past, including recent decisions approving monitoring agricultural activity. The “anti-us” rhetoric has been a long-running divisive strategy on many issues before and, as it does here, serves no purpose except to block effective collaboration.
“Gordondale Farms, the farm which has drawn the ire of a vocal few in the village has 95% of the Nelsonville Recharge Zone already planted in alfalfa and forest.”
False: The actual recharge zone, as documented by numerous scientific studies, extends north of the Village to Onland Lake. A drive by will show the curious hundreds of acres of corn planted in the true recharge area.
“The Board should also bear in mind that neither counties nor municipalities have the authority to require the installation of these monitoring wells.”
False: The Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the right of the DNR and municipalities to require monitoring wells to protect water quality resources and the public health based on a clause of the Wisconsin State Constitution.
Ironically, as the three-year struggle to approve monitoring wells in Nelsonville and ensure $240,000 in ARPA funding continues, a $1 million request for ARPA funds from Farming for the Future Foundation in Plover has raised eyebrows on the County Board. In making the request to create a vacation destination and “educational center celebrating the production agriculture community,” several Board members questioned what message that approval might send, given research connecting that specific activity with current groundwater pollution.
In the end, every citizen in the County and State has a right to clean groundwater and government has a responsibility to make it happen. Obfuscation of this simple truth needs to stop, wherever and however it appears. The Village of Nelsonville has every right to bring their plight to light and ask for help in remediating the situation. It is clear that monitoring wells would help greatly in identifying zones of clean water in their area.