Protecting drinking water

A manure pollution crisis

Imagine waking up to make coffee, turning on your faucet and watching as brown, foul-smelling liquid comes pouring into your sink, onto your hands, and into your child’s water cup. It’s like something from a horror movie.

Unfortunately, this is the reality for many Wisconsinites. As factory farms – also called CAFOs – increase in size and number, toxic drinking water is becoming an acute crisis for hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin residents.

Entire communities are at risk for short-term and long-term consequences, ranging from diarrhea to learning disabilities to infant death. (4)

Farm run-off that gets into our groundwater, lakes, and streams contains dangerous pathogens, bacteria, and chemicals. Private wells are becoming inundated with dangerous bacteria. It’s estimated nearly 100,000 homes have wells contaminated with nitrates. The chemical can cause Blue Baby Syndrome, an acute medical emergency that can lead to infant death. (5)

With little recourse and only expensive solutions to a problem they did not create, residents lack support from their state government. In fact, a nonpartisan report found the DNR looked the other way 95 percent of the time as factory farms violated rules intended to protect citizens from manure pollution. (6) Cows in Wisconsin generate more fecal waste each year than the combined populations of Tokyo and Mexico City. (7)

It’s important to do the best we can to mitigate the risk to public health created by that waste before it becomes a crisis in other parts of the state, like it is in Kewaunee County.

Graphic footage of a shower in a Kewaunee County home running brown with manure pollution.

Levels worse than Flint

Thousands of people living across the state in urban, rural, and suburban communities are being exposed to lead. (1)

Lead poisoning can cause a lifetime of serious health problems such as lower IQs, brain damage, violent behavior, and decreased academic performance. Children are particularly susceptible to the terrible impacts of lead poisoning.

A limited study by the EPA shows more than 80 water systems in Wisconsin have lead pipes – from Bayfield County up north to Rock County in the south. (2) No level of lead is safe. Children across the state are suffering from elevated levels of lead in their blood. In Milwaukee, for instance, lead poisoning in kids was nearly twice that of Flint, Michigan. (3)

Sen. LaTonya Johnson speaks about lead levels in Milwaukee.

Solutions exist

It does not have to be this way. And, in fact, there has been some movement forward in the past year.

Conservation voters helped pass improved manure spreading rules that will begin to address some of the manure pollution problems in eastern Wisconsin. Legislation called the Leading on Lead Bill passed into law, which will begin to offer new solutions for people suffering from lead-tainted water pipes.

However, major work remains. For years, many of Wisconsin’s elected leaders have looked the other way, refused to prepare for future problems, and prioritized polluters over people.

Testing wells and mapping the manure pollution problem in other sensitive areas like southwest Wisconsin has already begun with startling results. Forty-two percent of wells tested there were positive for bacterial and chemical contamination. Now, it's imperative testing continues and the DNR enacts the revised NR 151 rules there, and across the state. Additionally, families and individuals must have increased and varied resources to rid their homes of lead water pipes or contaminated wells.

We must fully fund our county conservationists who are on the ground when manure spills occur and who help develop nutrient management plans. We must ensure enforcement of current laws. And, of course, our elected leaders can and should be taking steps to deal with problems with our drinking water before they become full-blown crises.

Most importantly, you can help. We’ll continue to provide opportunities to act both in the short-term and on longer term strategies to safeguard our most precious natural resource. Together, we can make clean, safe drinking water for all a reality.

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Recently, 42 percent of wells tested in southwest Wisconsin contained toxic chemicals or bacteria. Support expanding new manure pollution rules and making clean drinking water a priority at the State Capitol.

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Ned Gatzke, Sparta