August 19, 2014

In state’s karst area, even good farming may pollute groundwater

One study suggests annual well tests are insufficient; second finds salmonella in 4 of 10 wells

Aerial view of sinkholes in a close-cropped field.

Door County Soil and Water Conservation Department

Aerial view of sinkholes in a close-cropped field.

Two new studies of private well water in Kewaunee County have linked contamination to fertilizer, livestock manure and human waste — laying bare a situation that county conservationist Andy Wallander, after 25 years on the job, can sum up in a sentence.

“In these shallow bedrock areas, what you put on the surface, you will end up drinking eventually,” Wallander said.

One study found the potentially toxic bacterium salmonella in drinking water, which could come from people, livestock or wild animals.

“I’ve never seen groundwater like this before. It’s a really high hit rate for contaminants,” said Mark Borchardt, a microbiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service who coauthored the study.

In northeastern Wisconsin — parts of Kewaunee, Brown, Calumet, Manitowoc and Door counties — dirty water can travel fast down to aquifers without getting filtered along the way, because the soils are so thin and the karst bedrock so cracked.

And most people in rural Kewaunee County rely on private wells. As of May, 30 percent of the county’s wells had been found unsafe due to bacteria or nitrates.

Since 2006, 66 Wisconsin wells have been or will be replaced due to livestock manure contamination, according to state Department of Natural Resources data from its Well Compensation grant fund. Three-quarters of them were in areas with susceptible karst geology.

None of the well replacements was in Kewaunee County, but in the town of Lincoln, where soils are particularly thin, half the wells have tested as unsafe. Lincoln has about 334 households, which rely on private wells. Potential sources of contamination include fertilizers, manure or other waste spread on fields for agriculture, and human waste from septic systems.

The county board in June asked the state for help compiling what is known about health impacts on groundwater from land spreading and septic systems. Next month the board is scheduled to consider an ordinance that would limit waste spreading on thin soils in the winter to prevent contamination.

Even good farming can pollute

Two researchers who tracked 10 town of Lincoln wells each month for a year estimated that in the area near the wells, agriculture contributed 96 percent of the nitrates to groundwater, and septic systems contributed 4 percent. The county’s 42,000 cows produce as much waste as 1 million people; Kewaunee County has a population of about 20,500.

The researchers concluded that agriculture is tainting private wells even when farmers are following generally accepted farming practices.

“I think a lot of us have been saying that for years. Nutrient management plans don’t necessarily mean that your groundwater is going to meet drinking water standards,” said Kevin Masarik, who co-authored the study. “They weren’t designed to be protective of drinking water quality.”

Kewaunee County water quality specialist Davina Bonness coauthored a study finding that in areas with vulnerable geology, even annual well tests may provide "a false sense of safety." Photo July 18, 2012.

Kate Golden / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Kewaunee County water quality specialist Davina Bonness coauthored a study finding that in areas with vulnerable geology, even annual well tests may provide “a false sense of safety.” Photo July 18, 2012.

Masarik, an outreach specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Extension, collaborated with Davina Bonness, a Kewaunee County water quality specialist. The research was funded by the town of Lincoln and the Lakeshore Natural Resource Partnership, an environmental advocacy group for the region.

If people there want nitrate levels to go down in the long term, the farming practices set out in nutrient management plans — such as when and how much manure or other waste is added to fields — will have to change, the researchers wrote.

But Dairy Business Association lobbyist John Holevoet said, “I don’t think that these studies show that nutrient management plans are inadequate, in large part because they don’t clearly show what the source of the nitrogen is.”

He also questioned whether the samples were taken correctly and the wells were “up to spec.”

The DNR and the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection regulate agricultural waste.

DATCP spokeswoman Donna Gilson said agency officials could not comment on the studies because they had not had a chance to fully review them.

But DATCP and DNR officials said nutrient management plans are designed to minimize, not completely eliminate, pollution.

“The idea of having absolutely no runoff, whether to surface or groundwater, is a very difficult standard to meet, and that’s not how the technical guidance is set up,” said Keith Foye, who runs DATCP’s Land and Water Bureau.

Andrew Craig, DNR nutrient management specialist, agreed.

“Nutrient management plans are not an implicit guarantee that there won’t be a discharge of nutrients to groundwater,” Craig said.

He noted that weather often determines whether nutrients get absorbed by crops or run off into surface or groundwater. Asked whether the current standards for farming are adequate to protect the karst area’s groundwater, Craig said, “We have to implement the rules the Legislature passes. They’re designed to be protective. They could be in some situations; they may not be in others.”

Test more often in karst area

Bonness and Masarik’s study examined the month-to-month variation in water quality in wells with a history of contamination. The findings should allow officials to make better recommendations to homeowners on how often and when to test wells and eventually assess whether water quality is getting better or worse.

The results varied so much, the researchers found, that testing just once a year may give homeowners in that area a “false sense of safety.”

Coliform bacteria were found in six wells. They are harmless but indicate that pathogens like giardia could get into the water. Nitrates in drinking water can cause the potentially fatal blue-baby syndrome, a concern for pregnant women and infants.

Borchardt, the USDA microbiologist, conducted an analysis of a 2007 norovirus outbreak in Door County that sickened 229 restaurant patrons and food workers. The analysis found a new septic system was to blame and concluded that in karst areas, even systems built to code may still pollute the water.

Henry Nehls-Lowe, supervisor of the Hazard Assessment, Response and Outreach Unit in the state health department’s Division of Public Health, said officials are concerned about reports of water-quality problems in the area.

“We’re hearing a lot about Kewaunee County and the karst area, and it seems like some of the reports indicate greater risk, possibly,” Nehls-Lowe said. “And we’re paying special attention to it.”

Crevices in this frozen Door County farm field illustrate the groundwater’s vulnerability. Water travels so fast through cracks in the bedrock that it gets to the aquifers before any pollutants in it can be filtered.

Door County Soil and Water Conservation Department

Crevices in this frozen Door County farm field illustrate the groundwater’s vulnerability. Water travels so fast through cracks in the bedrock that it gets to the aquifers before any pollutants in it can be filtered.

Bovine, human viruses found in wells

In a second study — a pilot project testing 10 wells in Kewaunee County — two were found to be contaminated by cattle manure, two by human waste, and one by both. The researchers tested for viruses specific to those sources.

“When the tests are positive, there is no ambiguity about the fecal source,” the scientists wrote in a summary to the Lincoln Town Board.

The study was conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, the U.S. Geological Survey Wisconsin Water Science Center and the UW-Oshkosh.

The wells were not representative but chosen for their water-quality problems. The pilot project is intended to help the researchers apply for funding for a larger study.

They hope to better characterize what is in people’s wells in northeastern Wisconsin and to find out which areas are most susceptible to contamination.

“The other thing we can do is start thinking about practices that minimize contamination,” coauthor Borchardt said. “Not just for livestock …  it’s also for human sources.”

This diagram has been used for years to explain karst to residents of northeastern Wisconsin. Page from a Door County brochure.

Door County Soil and Water Conservation Department

This diagram has been used for years to explain karst to residents of northeastern Wisconsin. Page from a Door County brochure.

Salmonella: Health risk unknown

Salmonella, which can cause severe illness, turned up in four of the 10 wells in the pilot project — an uncommon finding in groundwater, Borchardt said. One well also tested positive for Campylobacter jejuni, another bacterium that can make people sick.

The genetic tests cannot distinguish between live and dead bacteria.

“If they’re dead, it’s not an immediate public health concern,” said Chuck Czuprynski, a professor who directs the UW-Madison Food Research Institute. “But if there’s reason to believe they’re not dead, that’s a different story and it is a concern.”

Salmonella is the most common cause of food poisoning in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Borchardt said the one-time samples probably represent “kind of a best-case scenario in terms of contamination,” because they were taken after the spring groundwater recharge, which is when snowmelt and rain are more likely to contaminate aquifers.

Holevoet, the dairy lobbyist, focused on the presence of human waste in the wells.

“I think what we find from Dr. Borchardt’s studies is that a lot of the contamination doesn’t come from dairy at all,” he said.

He said he looked forward to more complete research identifying the specific sources of contamination.

Contaminated well? Not surprising

Chuck Warzecha, director of the state health department’s Bureau of Environmental and Occupational Health, said he has not seen illness outbreaks in Wisconsin traced back to salmonella in groundwater.

“But I would be concerned every time we found salmonella in a well,” he said.

The state health department plans to provide well tests to any study participants who want to follow up, he said.

The pilot study found both a bovine virus and salmonella in Lynda Cochart’s well water.

“It didn’t surprise me,” said the Casco resident, who says her well test results have deteriorated over the years.

Cochart, along with her neighbors, is trying to halt a nearby dairy operation from expanding. She does not drink her water. Recently, she became worried when her grandchild cut herself and tried to use faucet water to clean it.

“It bothered me the rest of that day and all night, thinking what I’m exposing them to with my water,” she said. “So it is of great concern to me.”

This story has been corrected. The Dairy Business Association lobbyist is named John Holevoet, not Holevogt.

  • Tina T.

    The chart lists Cooperstown as a part of Brown County. Shouldn’t that be Manitowoc?

    • Kate Golden

      Looks that way. The county identifications are straight from the DNR data, and I’m guessing someone there googled and found the Cooperstown that’s in Brown County, Illinois. I’ll make that fix. Thanks!

  • Robyn Mulhaney

    As a resident of and business owner in Kewaunee County I can guarantee that these issues are causing a great divide in the community. Surface and groundwater are both heavily polluted and STILL local action and state funding are being slowed down by agriculture interests.

    Our beautiful lakeshore community is being treated as a dumping ground for industrial, agricultural and human waste. Green Bay pipes in water from the Kewaunee County shores for their residents. It may take a Toledo-like event to truly grab the states attention to stop land spreading in vulnerable areas and consider the amount of waste distributed county wide.

  • A thought provoking article. It is interesting that the data provided in the studies is about manure, bacteria and viruses while the comments from the Dairy lobby, DATCP and DNR are about nitrogen contamination.

  • liars

    So shut down agriculture and import your food from China and mess the land up there. Move to a project highrise in a big city. But, don’t forget your municipal sewage sludge contains up to 74,000 chemicals that are unregulated. Sterilize yourself and quit having babies. Then let 5,000,000 Islamic immigrants come to replace you. Kill yourselves already!

  • liars

    In addition, regarding government programs to regulate septic systems the following things are regular parts of such programs:
    1) The majority of septic inspectors typically don’t know all their own rules or understand the soil and wastewater science and construction standards upon which the rules are based.
    2) The majority also are unable to detect cheating by soil evaluators or even installers, the few who are intrepid and intelligent enough to realize it typically are told to shut up.
    3) Program managers and administrators typically will not make waves against cheaters and some want cheaters to oil squeaky wheels which could otherwise cause them hardship politically.
    4) Cheating is a fact and usually the rule in a program and it creates and unfair economic playing field.
    5) Septic programs encourage the public do be dishonest.
    6) Septic programs usually punish the honest financially.
    7) Septic programs usually reward the dishonest financially, including soil evaluators, installers, builders, and homeowners.
    8) Because of the effects of cheating, septic system regulation programs are more than half undermined of their purpose.
    9) Program regulations are usually based on other codes and not tailored for a given area’s soils and geology, or economics or concerns/desires of the citizens of the county.
    10) Some regulations are outdated and stupid yet most people who should be making changes never understand it and these rules are never changed.
    11) While no one has ever been killed by a septic system, lateral flow (downhill) through soil is typically never given credit for its treatment and disposal ability, purely out of fear and CYA action, resulting in unnecessarily expensive systems, which typically have an annual maintenance cost rivalling a sizable and economically harmful fraction of annual property tax bills.
    12) Proprietary system manufacturers are usually on the hunt seeking to legislate the public into having to purchase their systems, and they seem to have a hayday in this usually. When these are not required by law they cost about 10 to 12 thousand dollars; when required by law the price is about 15 to 20 thousand dollars.
    13) Usually, if there is any good progress in regulation improvement and program effectiveness, it is only due to a very small group, typically only 3 to 4 individuals. These people are usually Christians and have a Christian world view and each happens to have a skill set which is just right for enabling this progress. When the number of people involved gets over this number, a backwards gradient develops away from progress, and ridiculous and unworkable rules are proposed, which reinforce 4 through 8 above.
    14) Inspectors who really care, know and learn their rules and science, and are hard workers, will half the time be stomped by program managers and end up unemployed or unhappy.
    15) Sometimes, county commissioners will not support a program doing the right things.
    16) Sometimes, state officials wreak havoc on what is right.
    17) Usually, state and county employees will end up caring more about raises and benefits than what they are tasked with doing and who they are supposed to be serving. Un-Godly, unfair, and economically-hurtful permit and inspection fees are the sign of this.
    18) Analysis of permit data, for instance the numbers and percentages of each of the different system types recommended by each soil evaluator working in a county, is the most powerful tool for detecting possible or probable cheating. For instance as was the case in one Midwestern state county, according to the soil survey, 50 to 70% of the soils would require a modified standard system and another 10 to 15% an alternative system, cheating is highly likely indicated when one particular soil evaluator had a 92% rate of straight, standard, unmodified septic systems in 600 evaluations over a 4-year period. There was also the fact that this individual never had a single sand-lined trench system when it is virtually inevitable in this particular county to have at least 3 or 4 a year, minimum, if working in the county. Out of 600 permits probably 2 to 5 percent should have been in this soil type.
    19) Unless proficient people have already seen to the problem being solved, many septic tanks, brand new, leak. Demonstrations have been done with tanks set up in a parking lot and filled with water; too many spout water out the sides like fountains. Others leak around the seam in two part tanks which have inadequate gaskets, a top half on the bottom half. Some will fall apart in the tank hole during installation, the concrete crumbling or breaking. Some with leaks will self-seal over time, others do not, as in the case of one two-piece tank which was found to have been leaking out the seam and down the tank hole in a very highly permeable soil over the entire time it had been in the ground, a period of something like 15 years; it was discovered after repeated failed well tests. If tanks are not bedded in a material such a pea gravel, large rocks or protrusions of bedrock are highly likely to cause differential settling and breakage of the tank.
    20) Cows are typically excellent waste disposers; they distribute their waste over a wide area, they place it in or on the topsoil, and they apply it in doses.
    21) It is worth remembering that in some longtime feedlots (nonkarst non highly permeable soils), after abandonment, phosphorus was found to have not made it more than 5 or 6 feet deep into the soil.
    22) Most of the problems with contamination of groundwater from septic systems are due to leaking tanks and trenches that are too deep and below the zone with a high enough oxygen diffusion rate into the soil for a healthy component of aerobic treatment.
    23) Logically, granted the cheating, one thing septic inspections need to include is a surprise spot-check inspection on at least a percentage of sites, and some occasional monitoring from a distance surreptitiously. This is because cheating installers using bogus soil evaluations in soils they know have high risk of problems are highly likely to dig very deep trenches or at least some spots of very deep trench in some portion of an absorption field, to ensure ‘percolation’, and to do this before or after the usual inspection visits.
    24) If water wells are not grouted on the outside of the well casing in the annulus space between the casing and the borehole, the annulus space becomes a conduit for potential groundwater contamination for whatever length the casing is not grouted, as far as I know.
    25) Good septic system regulation programs that can be highly effective are possible. They require special individuals, and to be based on soil science, wastewater science, construction science, with standards coordinated based on these things, input from the local county, consideration for economics, and proficiency and diligence in inspection, management, and administration, with support from county commissioners. All it take for a program to be severely impaired is one stupid manager or administrator.
    I apologize for the tone of my other comment. Don’t anybody kill themselves. I do think we are slowly killing our country, however, and if it doesn’t change it will go to someone else and they certainly won’t take care of the environment.