Via Wisconsin Rapids Tribune:

NEKOOSA – Some private wells in central Wisconsin contain seven times as much of the standard level of harmful contaminants, but at least one expert says there are ways to combat the problem using solutions from northern Europe.

 

Infants and women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant are the most at risk, Dr. Sarah Yang, groundwater toxicologist for the Wisconsin Department of Health and Human Services. In infants, the nitrates affect how the blood transport oxygen and can lead to what is known as blue baby syndrome, Yang said.

 

Nitrates keep the baby’s brain and spine from developing properly, Yang said

For everyone, high nitrate levels can lead to thyroid disease and colon cancer, Yang said.

Yang was one of 10 panelists who gathered Monday evening at the Nekoosa High School Auditorium to discuss groundwater contamination in central Wisconsin. The Wood County Citizens Groundwater Group, a county group that advises the Wood County Conservation, Education and Economic Development Committee, arranged the discussion to educate residents about contaminated water in central Wisconsin, said Bill Leichtnam, a Wood County Board member and chairman of the Wood County Citizens Groundwater Group.

The Portage County village of Nelsonville had 40 percent of wells tested exceed the 10 parts per million standard, said Nancy Eggleston, Wood County Environmental Health supervisor. In 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency tested water in northern Juneau County and the Port Edwards area in response to residents’ water concerns. They found some nitrate tests as high as 70 parts per million, Eggleston said.

The number one risk of nitrates in well water is having a crop field within 750 feet of the well, said Mark Borchardt, a microbiologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Residents can’t just take tests of water in private wells and know where the source of nitrates or other contaminates are coming from, Borchardt said. A lot of data has been gathered across Wisconsin, and there is overwhelming evidence private septic systems and agriculture are the biggest causes of nitrates in private wells, he said.

There are answers to the problem, Borchardt said. In the country of Denmark, officials limited livestock density, ordered better manure handling, required mandatory crop rotation and cover crops, Borchardt said. Denmark also expanded wetland designations, required buffer zones and created groundwater protection areas.

The restrictions worked, Borchardt said. Farmers and officials in central Wisconsin don’t have to start from scratch. They can just look to the practices started in Denmark, which seems to have a similar soil structure to central Wisconsin.

Wisconsin is one of the top producers in the country for many vegetables, said Yi Wang, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who studies sustainable vegetable production. Wisconsin is the leading producer of cabbage for sauerkraut, green beans and beats. The state is the second-largest producer of peas and third-largest producer of corn and potatoes, Wang said.

Wisconsin agriculture creates 154,000 jobs, Wang said. Processing the produce creates 282,000 jobs, she said. Agriculture brings $105 billion into the state annually and is an important part of the state’s economy.

In the Central Sands region, an inch of rain will stay in the topsoil, but anything more than an inch will go through the topsoil and into the water table taking nitrates with it, Wang said. In recent years, the area has had more extreme and unpredictable weather, and it’s making the situation with nitrates worse, Wang said.

Nitrates are needed in the agricultural industry, Wang said. Without them, vegetables, like potatoes, don’t grown to acceptable standards, she said.

The key is to apply the right amount of nutrients in the right place at the right time, Wang said. It can be done using specialized watering systems and computers, she said.

Andy Diercks is a fourth-generation farmer and president of Coloma Farms near the Adams-Waushara County line. Every year, members of the Wisconsin Potatoes and Vegetable Growers Association pay $875,000 for research and much of the research is being done on water quality and quantity, he said.

Working with the University of Wisconsin, Diercks said he’s working on controlling how much water is coming off crops. He’s working on planting native plants on his land and using cover crops when it’s practical, he said.

Farmer John Eron said he worked with a citizen-based environmental group called Friends of Mill Creek back in 2000. The farmers and the group had problems communicating and began to work separately, but, in 2016, Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection made money available to help with the water issues, Eron said.

The money has helped farmers by cover crops, like rye, Eron said. Rye is a kind of scavenger crop, which takes up the nutrients in the soil, Eron said.

Sen. Patrick Testin, R-Stevens Point, said he and other legislators have traveled the state talking to people about water issues. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for the problem, he said.

Residents need to stop scaring each other on the issue of water quality, said Rep. Scott Krug, R-Rome. The proposed large-scale dairy in Saratoga has been causing people concern for seven years, but it is unlikely the dairy will happen, he said.

There are a group of bills coming in the next week that should help the problem significantly, Krug said.

If Wisconsin wants to mediate every contaminated well in the state, it will cost about $250 million, said Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point. The water situation is a public crisis, and something needs to be done immediately, Shankland said, drawing the first round of applause from the audience of about 200 people Monday evening.

The state doesn’t need to start from scratch, Shankland said. It just needs to follow the changes made in Denmark, she said. The state needs to set limits on nitrates to improve water quality, she said. There needs to be targeted performance standards for the industry, Shankland said.

Denmark operates in a very different market than Wisconsin farmers operate in, Diercks said. Cutting the use of nitrates by 10 percent does not equal a 10 percent reduction of nitrates going into the water system, he said.

“I’m sorry, it’s just not that easy, Diercks said. “I’m going to have less crops or less quality. Wisconsin will have a less competitive market than the rest of the country.”

The conversations will have to continue, Shankland said. In the meantime, Shankland suggested people who have questions about their water quality to contact the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point’s Center for Watershed Science and Education.

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