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'We're at the beginning': Water group’s recommendations focus on future

Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of stories exploring local and state issues related to dairy farms.

In December 2016, the St. Croix County Board established a committee to study ground and surface water quality. The group, established in place of a moratorium on concentrated animal feeding operations, presented their nine months of research and discussion to the St. Croix County Board in October.

The study group proposed more research into the distinctions between agricultural and non-agricultural sources of nitrate pollution.

This research was among several study group recommendations calling for improved "baseline data" regarding the county's water quality.

PREVIOUSLY: Reactions mixed on water group recommendations — now what?

"It's a starting point," said Kim Dupre, a resident of Emerald township. "We've got to start somewhere, we've got to get data. The best arguments for doing what we need to do will be getting that data that protects public health."

A regular and vocal attendee at the study group's and Community Development meetings, Dupre heads Emerald Clean Water for All, a grassroots organization aimed at protecting the community's water supply.

The group stepped forward as opponents of a request from dairy operator Emerald Sky to expand its Wisconsin facility from about 2,400 animal units to 8,800 in May 2016.

Their mission to block the expansion amped up this spring when an anonymous tipster reported a large-scale manure spill at the facility that went uncleaned and unreported for nearly three months.

Although the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources launched an investigation into the spill, some Emerald residents said during a public comment period in May that the county failed to properly notify them of the spill.

Among the recommendations approved at the St. Croix County Board's October meeting was establishing a protocol for responding to water resource pollution emergencies that pose a threat to residents' health.

READ MORE: Emerald Sky Dairy's manure spill gives neighbors pause | Counties face limits to livestock oversight

The board also proposed establishing an active water quality committee to advocate for water quality as a priority the county continues to address in the future.

Jody Lenz, who owns and operates Threshing Table, a community supported agriculture farm near Star Prairie, echoed Dupre's sentiment.

Everyone who participated in the study group, she said, agreed groundwater needs to be clean. The cause of unclean water, however, was far from consensus.

"All this work we just did is just beginning," she said. "As long as that water study group comes to fruition and does a good job of continuing to keep these things at the forefront. If all we go back to what's in place, then we are not truly protecting groundwater."

The group's proposed recommendations for revising land use and zoning policies included updating well standards and potentially adopting each level of a five-tier regulatory system for design and construction.

This could improve access to data, said citizen member Tom Zwald, whose family operates a dairy farm in St. Croix County, by shifting some of the regulatory authority from the Wisconsin DNR to the county.

"It will actually give us the exact data without requesting it from the DNR of where all the wells are constructed when pumps are put in," Zwald said. "The bigger thing is it gets the county the water data from any new construction and any new pump installation."

COMPARE: Municipal and private high-capacity wells in and near Pierce, Polk and St. Croix Counties

Another recommendation calls for identifying and mapping environmentally sensitive areas such as sinkholes and karst, as well as areas vulnerable to pollution.

The county could also develop and publish data and maps charting topographical features like bedrock, recharge, discharge and aquifers.

"This is taking a further look at how groundwater flows in the county," said citizen member Leslie Svacina.

Moving forward

County Supervisor Bill Peavey, the District 19 representative who cast the sole "no" vote against the recommendations, said he worried mapping efforts could encroach on landowners' rights.

"I think we've got to keep in mind to protect the private property rights of the individual," he said. "You're talking about sinkholes or depth to surface water — that's all private property and we can't think we can just go out and do that, go out and look for karst topography."

Enerson expressed similar trepidation over other recommendations, including one that would establish notification protocols for critical events like the manure spill that occurred near his property.

"I think it's a good idea, but it gets concerning when government is growing," he said. "What is someone with an $80,000-a-year job going to tell me what I have to do next week?"

Another recommendation he said could lead to government overreach is the increased effort to chart environmentally sensitive areas. He said it could lead to home and property owners unduly shouldering costs to fix identified issues.

"It puts the burden on the homeowner that I don't think should be there," he said.

The study group also advocated for the development of a more uniform, "scientifically sound" system to test well water for contaminants.

Despite ultimately voting in favor of the recommendations, Supervisor David Peterson, District 15, questioned whether current water testing procedures needed modifications.

"You can get a test kit from the (agricultural) center," he said. "If you're worried about your water, don't hesitate to have it tested. It's just some very common sense stuff to not get false readings."

But Svacina said the changes could establish a less complicated, more reliable system for compiling baseline data for the wells.

"The lab data that comes back from different labs also varies in terms of what that looks like," she said. "Then you also add in the factor of citizens are doing this themselves— our county doesn't always see that data."

According to the report prepared for the County Board at the conclusion of the water study group, the county has 161 public wells and 40 municipal wells, which supply water to 41,513 people.

The county also has roughly 16,000 private wells, the report states, which require no testing, nor is corrective action required should contamination be discovered. Private-well owners are responsible for maintaining the safety of their well water.

"It definitely makes me feel like it's such a giant mountain and we're chipping away with a teeny, tiny ice pick," Lenz said. "I have hope — because I have to have hope — that the pendulum will swing and this really good information will get out and, sadly, it will take Big Ag figuring out how to make money on it. We're at the beginning."