A River of Manure

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Liquid manure streams from a farm in rural Fennimore.

When Chuck Horn saw a river of liquid manure coursing through his snow-covered front yard, he knew immediately what had happened.

“We have a small stream bed that runs through our yard, and the manure was following that bed,” Horn said. “You don’t like to point fingers, but when all factors are equal, you have to look at the most obvious one.”

Horn, a retired Department of Natural Resources warden, lives just below Misty Morning Dairy, a concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO, near Fennimore in Grant County.

The CAFO is equipped with a one million-gallon manure pit. Sometime during the night on February 18th, a coupling on a hose broke, sending gallons upon gallons of manure streaming two miles into Castle Rock Creek, a popular trout stream.

Horn estimated at the time the manure flow was seven inches deep and 18 inches wide.

Later, brook and brown trout began appearing belly up in Castle Rock Creek.

Drinking Water Contaminated

Things went from bad to worse when Horn and his neighbors were warned by the DNR they should not drink their water.

Fortunately, Horn has had a reverse osmosis filter for the past five years, which protected him from the worst of the impact. But tests showed the unfiltered water was rife with nitrates – a toxin that can have grave health effects on babies and children.

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The manure flow would eventually stretch two miles.

“I had the well tested immediately afterward,” Horn said. “The filtration worked and dropped nitrates to safe levels. In the unfiltered water the nitrates were very high, and are still high.”

Unfortunately, not everyone with a well can afford a reverse osmosis system, or to replace a well which can cost as much $15,000.

A bill drafted by Rep. Joel Kitchens in 2015 would have made it easier for people of all income levels to receive financial assistance to replace wells poisoned through no fault of their own. Although it did not pass the legislature in the 2015-2016 session, Rep. Kitchens is planning to bring it up again in the upcoming legislative session.

Permit for a Polluter

This wasn’t the first time Misty Morning Dairy had manure problems.
According to Horn, and online records, the DNR paid $50,000 from an emergency fund to hire private waste haulers to empty Misty Morning Dairy’s manure pit when the CAFO couldn’t afford to, in order to avert disaster.

Then, inexplicably, the DNR reissued the farm’s permit for pollution discharge, and allowed it to expand its operation from 1,340 animals to a 1,719 in 2014. The dairy was cited for non-compliance that September for a violation of manure spreading rules.

And then, the river of manure broke loose, running through Horn’s front yard and into the trout stream and groundwater.

Manure Straight Into Drinking Water Sources

In southwest Wisconsin, just as in northeast Wisconsin, the land is sensitive. The karst geology there includes shallow soils, fractures, and holes in the bedrock that provide, as Horn puts it, “an aqueduct directly to groundwater.”

That groundwater – now contaminated – is the primary source of drinking water for families living in the area.


The DNR warned residents to stop drinking their water due to this manure spill.

Without proper management and enforcement of manure run-off pollution, areas like Grant County, Kewaunee County, Calumet County, and more are especially vulnerable when manure isn’t managed properly.

Horn, who still works on two youth-oriented DNR projects, said: “I came into the department when it was one of the strongest environmental protection agencies in the nation, and I don’t know if they can say that anymore.”

Today, unfortunately, the DNR has rejected science in favor of business interests. Most recently, after more than a year’s worth of work by a coalition of local and state organizations, the state’s influential agri-business lobbying organization the Dairy Business Association, flexed its influence over Governor Walker and quietly had him scale back groundwater protections in a proposed set of manure runoff rules.

Back in Chuck Horn’s front yard, the river of manure has subsided, but his concerns – and toxins in the drinking water – remain. The Misty Morning Dairy is up for sale, and he’s heard rumors that a pig CAFO is looking at the area to set up shop.

“As far as environmental protection, I think we’ve taken a step backwards,” Horn said.

Learn more about manure in Wisconsin’s drinking water.