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Reactions mixed on water group recommendations — now what?

Jody Lenz, owner of Threshing Table, a community supported agriculture farm, has been forced to resort to buying bottled water for her family after her well water tested high in nitrates. John R. Russett / RiverTown Multimedia

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

Jody Lenz pulled one side of the bench away from her long dining room table and sat down. Across the table against the wall, next to the hutch, sat a mostly full 5-gallon water jug — now a necessity.

High nitrate levels in her well made that decision for her.

"I don't live in a Third World country and I'm buying my water as far out as I can see," she stated. "This is the plan, this is how we will get our water."

Agriculture contributed more than $550 million to St. Croix County's economy in 2014, according to the most recent information from University of Wisconsin-Extension, and employed roughly 10 percent of the population.

READ MORE: Emerald Sky Dairy's manure spill gives neighbors pause | Counties face limits to livestock oversight | Beneath the Surface: Reporters discuss recent dairy farm series

But alongside the economic contributions, some residents believe large-scale farming could contribute contaminants — namely nitrates — to their drinking water.

Nitrates, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, can enter groundwater from a number of origins: some through farming practices such as spreading manure, some through household sources including lawn fertilizer or septic systems.

In December 2016, on the heels of an application to more than triple the animal count at Emerald Sky Dairy, the St. Croix County Board established a committee to study ground and surface water quality in lieu of enacting a moratorium against large-scale farms categorized as concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs.

Members were tasked with developing "sound, science-based recommendations" for policies to protect the county's water quality and met for the first time just days after a late-December 2016 spill at Emerald Sky Dairy. The spill went unreported until the end of March.

Improved data-gathering, transparency and weighing current farming and environmental regulations dominated a round of Water Quality Study Group recommendations overwhelmingly approved by the St. Croix County Board at its October meeting.

The recommendations stem from nearly nine months of research and discussions by the study group, which enlisted county supervisors, Community Development staff, UW-Extension staff, area farmers and other citizen members.

Out of more than 30 recommendations, the group narrowed the list to eight for the board.

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

"These were things that were short-term goals," said citizen member Tom Zwald, whose family operates a dairy farm in St. Croix County. "We excluded anything that was long term when we did this just because these are things we can focus on right here in the now."

For Kim Dupre, a resident of Emerald township who heads Emerald Clean Water for All, a grassroots organization aimed at protecting the community's water supply, the recommendations signal a "journey — not a destination."

"It'd be really easy for the recommendations to end up on a shelf, in a binder and have nobody ever look at them again," Dupre said. "So, our next step is to make sure there is follow-through on these recommendations. That's what I'll be advocating for."

The takeaway

Lenz, a citizen member of the Ground and Surface Water Quality Study Group, came away from the nine months of biweekly meetings surprised and disappointed by how little regulatory control is at the local level.

"I feel like the really hard recommendations that I would have liked to have seen can't happen because we don't have the local control to do it," she said. "The state is still working hard to make sure that Big AgriBusiness can grow with as few restrictions as possible."

Chad Enerson, who halted plans to build a new house on his Emerald, Wis., property following the nearby Emerald Sky Dairy spill, remains skeptical of the recommendations.

He said he agrees with the county's approach to breaking up zoning in different areas, but he would have liked the recommendations to directly address how agriculture operators deal with waste. Larger operators, he said, enjoy more leniency than small businesses and farmers.

RELATED: Kewaunee County takes step to addresses water quality

"We look at the homeowner and small business and try to regulate them without looking at the farmers," he said. "I'm not against farming or the super-farmers coming in, but that regulation's got to apply to everybody."

Zoning, licensing and siting regulations, study group members concluded, could use some revision.

For Lenz, who grew up on a dairy farm in Kewaunee County and owns and operates Threshing Table, a community supported agriculture farm near Star Prairie, Wis., the most eye-opening event was when Kewaunee County Board Supervisor Lee Luft spoke to the study group.

"To know that there just isn't help when you need help," she said, referencing Kewaunee County's well-documented attempts to corral its water issues. "I don't know what more Kewaunee can do to prove that there should be no more cows. It's hard to hear and watch that happen and feel safe where we are."

RELATED: Dairy apprenticeship helps grads start new farms

Although few specific changes were proposed for how the county regulates livestock operation licensing and siting, one recommendation proposed exploring options to update the rules.

Recommendations for zoning and land-use regulation, however, include establishing groundwater recharge zones and encouraging common Private Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems and shared wells to promote higher standards.

Varying lot sizes for areas deemed environmentally sensitive were presented as another option.

"One thing we learned throughout the course of it is there are multiple sources for well contamination," Zwald said. "Depending on the topography, soils and subsoils you have, you could be in an environmentally sensitive area that would require different levels of construction or separations from your septic to your well to make sure your well is safe."

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