The High Cost of Safe Drinking Water


Manure lagoons hold hundreds of thousands of gallons of liquid manure. A crack or a leak can cause widespread contamination.

In August, Calumet County released a water study that showed more than 30 percent of wells tested there are contaminated with high levels of bacteria, nitrates, and other pollutants.

It came as no surprise to Chilton resident Jerry Kmack — pronounced Mack, like the truck – who took part in the voluntary testing there.

Kmack has known about the contamination in his well for more than a decade. And he’s had to take drastic measures to guard against the coliform and E. coli bacteria, nitrates, and pesticides in his well water.

Because of extremely fine particulate matter in his well water, he said, he has a whole house filtration system and several safeguards to make sure he and his wife aren’t sickened by their own drinking water.

“It’s a whole-house system that starts with a whole-house filter, then a high-end water softening system, then drinking water system with four particulate filters, then a membrane filter, and finally, UV sterilization,” he said.

02-18-2016 Spill -1

Manure pours from a lagoon in southwest Wisconsin.

The extreme precautions are necessary because the concentration of factory farms is growing in the area and the sensitive bedrock in the county allows manure runoff to seep quickly into the groundwater.

It is expensive and, Kmack said, he knows not everyone is fortunate enough to afford the equipment and maintenance it requires.

The DNR’s solution has been to set up a fund to help cover costs of digging a new well, but as Kmack and a county official pointed out, all of the wells tap into the same groundwater.

When wells are dug deeper, Kmack said, there’s a massive salt plain in the area and past that radon, arsenic, and other heavy metals start to appear.

There are also income restrictions that automatically disqualify a household that makes more than $65,000 from receiving financial aid to dig a new well. When added together, it is a weak solution to a serious problem.

“That (income restriction) made no sense at me at all — that a person’s income level should have anything to do with the fact that their water is being contaminated by man-made causes by no actions of theirs at all,” Kmack said. “It is completely out of our control. To me that is completely unjustifiable.”

The Dairy Business Association Connection

The Dairy Business Association is a lobbying group that represents some of the biggest polluters in the dairy industry. Nearby in Brillion, its board president, Gordon Speirs, runs Shiloh Dairy. Earlier this year he was investigated by the DNR for a manure run-off violationDespite spreading 100,000 gallons of manure ahead of a rain event, Speirs was not fined nor has any action been taken in civil court — the DNR’s strongest defense against such violations.

And Speirs isn’t the only member of the organization to have a history of spilling manure and other toxic sludge into groundwater.

A few weeks later Speirs and the DBA directly influenced Governor Scott Walker who quietly changed the scope of manure runoff rules that would have protected people like the Kmacks from runoff emptying directly into their well systems.

Unsurprisingly, Speirs donated thousands of dollars to Governor Walker over the past decade, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

Kmack is discouraged by what he sees as apathy in government, and he’s also witnessed people in his community unwilling to confront the polluters for fear of social retribution or a loss of property value.

Meanwhile, Kmack said, he has observed firsthand “load after load after load” of liquid manure being dumped on pastures, even at night – a move he suspects is an attempt to hide the activity.

“You can dislike oil, gas, and many other things,” Kmack said. “But in 72 hours, without potable water, you die. It’s hard to be more important that.”

Learn more about manure in Wisconsin’s drinking water.