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A new report by the Environmental Working Group and Midwest Environmental Advocates (MEA) has found that in nine counties, animal manure is over-applied to farmland, exacerbating rural Wisconsin’s water quality struggles. According to the report, four counties applied manure at more than 50% above the rate recommended by University of Wisconsin researchers to minimize pollution.
Among the regions included in the study were Kewaunee County and portions of the Central Sands. The study utilized aerial imagery and publicly available data and incorporates its findings in an interactive map. “The report confirms exactly what the citizen groups have said for years,” said Jodi Parins, a neighbor of Kinnard Farms, located in the Village of Casco. “Kinnard’s current water pollution permit and nutrient management plan aren’t protecting our drinking water.” Parins emphasized that “the DNR can no longer ignore the science that shows that concentrated animal feeding operations don’t work for our water or our communities — not by watering down manure, not by capturing methane, not by flushing gray water into our streams.”
The counties of Adams, Dane, Green, Juneau, Kewaunee, Lafayette, Portage, Rock, and Wood were also included in the study. In Kewaunee County, manure phosphorus exceeded the total crop phosphorus removal by 23%. In other words, about 1,222 tons of commercial phosphorus estimated to be sold in the county are unnecessary. In Dane County, 28 operations needed to travel more than 3 miles to dispose of manure without exceeding the phosphorus removal capacity of nearby crops. Nitrate is Wisconsin’s most common groundwater contaminant, with more than 90% of it coming from agricultural sources. An analysis done by the Environmental Working Group and Clean Wisconsin found that direct medical costs for nitrate contamination in drinking water ranged from $23-80 million per year in Wisconsin.
Adam Voskuil, MEA staff attorney and co-author of the report, stressed the DNR’s responsibility to consider existing rates of waste production in setting animal unit limits. “More cows would lead to more pollution,” said Voskuil, “there’s just nowhere for additional manure to be safely spread.”
The landscape of Wisconsin’s agricultural sector has changed over time. While Wisconsin has lost 44% of its dairy farms over the last decade, the report also notes that milk production is now at record levels. It’s a rise due in part to an increase in the number of CAFOs, or industrial facilities with more than 1,000 “animal units,” as defined by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). About 3% of Wisconsin’s farms produce around 40% of the state’s milk.
Meanwhile, water quality in those counties has declined. The report pointed to over 1,500 miles of streams, rivers, and 33 lakes in the nine counties as being assessed as “impaired,” largely due to agriculture-related pollution. What’s more, there’s not enough land to handle all of the waste. “The results indicate widespread overapplication of nutrients relative to UW recommendations about what’s needed for crops to thrive,” reads the report. “In several areas, there’s not enough agricultural land to safely and economically dispose of the manure that animal feeding operations generate.” It adds that, “an estimated two-thirds of manure nutrients in the counties are produced by unpermitted operations, for which the Wisconsin DNR has little to no information regarding location, size, how much manure they produce or where it is spread.”
Andrea Gelatt, MEA senior staff attorney, said that “a comprehensive assessment of the capacity of Wisconsin’s rural landscape to handle its manure and fertilizer load is long overdue.” Gelatt added, “That assessment must drive decisions about whether to allow CAFO expansion or to set reasonable limits to expansion so that families in rural Wisconsin can have the clean water they deserve.”
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