SRAP Board Member Nancy Utesch: Wisconsin DNR’s low-key response to Kewaunee County water crisis not nearly enough

Opinion

The Capital Times | June 10, 2017

The Department of Natural Resources’ recent low-key roll-out of help for Kewaunee County residents dealing with contamination so great that they cannot drink nor should they bathe in their water highlights the DNR’s continued failures, lack of integrity, and continued lack of urgency in responding to Kewaunee’s health and water crisis.

While Kewaunee attempts to apply tourniquets to this massive problem where we live, the DNR continues to approve more concentrated animal feeding operations and CAFO expansions. Our animal numbers have surpassed the 98,000 mark, while our human population is roughly 20,500.

This burgeoning problem, akin to pouring gasoline on the fire, is rarely discussed — nor is the reality that we can no longer shoulder the burdens of the intensive farming taking place where we live and the resulting water contamination, human health threats, plunging property values, and severe quality of life issues that are as widespread as our growing water contamination rates.

Instead, the DNR, Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, Public Service Commission, Gov. Walker and industry interests make silver-bullet promises of fertilizer plants, biogas plants, digester cures and more remedies — but don’t discuss actually curtailing the addition of more cows in our county and the massive contaminating waste that’s generated. Initiatives by local farmers addressing conservation practices are slowly being implemented, but lack of DNR oversight and enforcement of CAFOs continues to be a major problem, and safeguards such as herd caps and in-ground monitoring wells at lagoon sites and spreading fields continue to be contested in court.

Make no mistake, citizens and various attorneys, including Midwest Environmental Advocates, have done the heavy lifting on the manure situation in Kewaunee. This process of addressing our water crisis has taken many years, multiple dollars, and extensive personal time by citizens engaged in work groups and meetings.

In 2014, Judge Jeffrey Boldt described Kewaunee’s crisis as “deplorable … massive regulatory failure.” A legislative audit of the DNR in June 2016 exposed the fact that the DNR failed to follow its own policies on water quality issues 94 percent of the time. On the latest research findings, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Mark Borchardt stated: “We have never seen this level of contamination before.”

Work groups engaged stakeholders for over a year, formulating recommendations for addressing the problems that plague our community and its water, only to have Gov. Scott Walker gut the recommendations after meeting with industry interests, with the Dairy Business Association claiming rule revisions would make dairy farmers scapegoats.

Many Kewaunee residents living with water contaminated by bovine manure have absolutely no idea what the DNR’s plans are, or how their household can receive help. Homeowners are not only left with the very expensive cleanup costs of well remediation, but must also decipher what system would work in their home, and effectively address their particular contamination issue. Politicians touting low-cost loans to address the contamination offer little solace to citizens suffering from water contamination due to no fault of their own. New wells have been drilled, only to have them come up contaminated in a short duration of time.