DNR to tackle nitrate pollution from manure, fertilizer

    "Well" by Mamboman1 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

    By a 5-to-1 vote, the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board approved a “scope statement” — the broad outline of a rule related to decreasing nitrate pollution of groundwater in parts of the state and scheduled public hearings on the topic.

    Nitrates are compounds that are essential for all living things, though they can cause problems at high levels. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the danger is especially pronounced for infants and pregnant women. “Some children and adults who ate food or drank fluids that contained unusually high levels of nitrite experienced decreases in blood pressure, increased heart rate, reduced ability of the blood to carry oxygen to tissues, headaches, abdominal cramps, vomiting and even death,” according to the CDC website. Generally, nitrites combine in the environment to form more stable nitrate compounds. 

    About 90% of nitrates found in groundwater come from agricultural sources, including manure and other fertilizers. However, according to a Department of Natural Resources (DNR) press release, a majority of nitrates in Wisconsin’s groundwater come from fertilizers which are applied to corn fields.

    The approval of the scope statement is a crucial step toward  developing new rules and regulations related to nitrate-spreading practices. “This process is going to take us a couple of years and is going to have all the stakeholders at the table,” said NRB Chairman Dr. Frederick Prehn. “It’s a step in the right direction. Hopefully, it’s a quantitative step that changes the water. The public wants solutions, and (agriculture) wants to be a part of that.”

    In all, this process can take up to 30 months before any final approvals are likely to come before the legislature.

    “We’ve done it before a hundred times over, and we will do this with transparency and openness from this administration,” Secretary-designee Preston Cole said. “It will be a long, difficult road, but this board is duly appointed to deal with some of the most troubling issues, and, quite frankly, I can’t think of a better group of individuals to work with.”

    Water quality issues have come to the forefront of the DNR’s attention this year, with the agency hosting public hearings on several key issues related to water contamination. Another major issue has been chemical contamination in waterways with PFAS, a group of compounds used in products like non-stick pans, fast food wrappers and firefighting foam that have been linked to serious health problems.

    The state has also had recent issues with manure control in rural parts of Wisconsin. A manure spill, which occurred in early October, released 40,000 gallons of liquid waste in Marathon County. The spill spread over land, eventually making contact with a nearby creek.

    Isiah Holmes
    Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, his writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, and other outlets.