Wisconsin voters’ concerns about pollution in lakes and streams, contamination of drinking water supplies and depleted aquifers are transforming water into a key campaign issue in this fall’s elections, including the race between Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold.
“I can’t remember a time when it (water) was a major statewide political issue,” said University of Wisconsin-Madison history professor John Sharpless, a former Republican congressional candidate.
In Wisconsin, water worries have increased in response to shifts toward large-scale livestock farming and growing knowledge about the threats that lead and other contaminants pose in various regions.
Residents of Kewaunee County and the Central Sands region of the state — two of the areas most vulnerable to groundwater pollution — are demanding answers from politicians who acknowledge they cannot afford to ignore water issues if they want to keep their seats in the 2016 election.
Testing over the past few years has uncovered widespread contamination from bacteria, nitrate and viruses in private drinking water wells in Kewaunee County — some of it linked to the proliferation of large dairy farms known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.
The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism’s Failure at the Faucet series also has found that hundreds of thousands of state residents are at risk of drinking water with unsafe levels of nitrate, bacteria, arsenic, lead and other contaminants.
Sharpless said Wisconsin has not had the type of defining environmental disaster that has driven change in other parts of the country and at other points in history.
“We have had no equivalent to the Love Canal disaster or when Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969,” Sharpless said.
State Rep. Scott Krug, R-Nekoosa, said the move of large dairy interests into his Central Sands district has changed the political landscape for him.
Recent data show the administration of Gov. Scott Walker, who has declared Wisconsin “Open for Business,” has been loathe to hand out fines for environmental infractions. A recent report from the Legislative Audit Bureau found the state Department of Natural Resources failed to follow its own policies 94 percent of the time over 10 years when wastewater treatment plants or large farms violated terms of their permits.
While high-capacity wells have been blamed for drying out lakes and streams in the Central Sands, Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel has issued a formal opinion that Wisconsin officials lack the legal authority to block any well based on drawdown from existing wells.
These moves have sparked sharp criticism by some residents in Krug’s district that Wisconsin’s leaders are not protecting its water resources.
“I wouldn’t say it’s California-urgent, but it’s one of the first emerging parts of the state of Wisconsin where it could potentially become California-urgent,” Krug said of the drawdown of local aquifers. “There are parts of my district where lakes have entirely disappeared.”
Caught in the middle
Krug has tried to straddle the warring sides, earning awards from the Dairy Business Association, which represents dairy farmers, milk processors and related businesses; and an endorsement in 2014 from the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, which says it is “committed to recapturing our state’s nonpartisan conservation legacy.”
“I think it’s political suicide to not at least acknowledge that there’s issues going on right now,” Krug said. “Even if it wasn’t a touchy issue when it comes to election issues, it’s a touchy issue at Wal-Mart. It’s a touchy issue at the bank. So those are things that I have to work on because, if you don’t get it done, you keep hearing about it.”
Both Democrats vying to unseat Krug are running on platforms to protect the region’s water quality.
Nekoosa school counselor David Gorski is a self-professed “Berniecrat” who supported former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. He said Krug and other Republicans have a history of voting against the environment.
Gorski said the DNR should allow high-capacity wells or CAFOs only if they “can operate without an adverse effect on the environment. That’s the way it’s supposed to go. The problem is, that’s not what’s happening under the Walker administration.”
Krug’s other Democratic challenger is Russ Brown, an organic farmer from Coloma who will face Gorski in the Tuesday, Aug. 9 primary. On his Facebook campaign page, Brown said he is driven by concerns over water quality, proposals for large farms in the region and the proliferation of high-capacity wells blamed for depleting water bodies including the Little Plover River and Long Lake.
“There is tourism, and if we don’t handle this problem, we’re going to cripple tourism,” Brown said. “We’re also going to cripple people who have bought or continue to buy vacation homes and retirement homes in the Central Sands area.”
One of the biggest controversies in Krug’s district is a proposal by the Wysocki Family of Cos. to build a 7,800-acre dairy operation in the town of Saratoga in Wood County.
For years, the Wysocki family has been fighting with the town over its proposed Golden Sands Dairy, which would include 4,000 cows, 300 heifers and 1,000 calves and produce about 55 million gallons of liquid manure, 25,000 tons of solid manure and other waste per year. The company won a recent court battle, but the town continues to fight. The DNR is reviewing the proposal.
Wysocki’s existing facility, Central Sands Dairy, came under fire in May for what nearby residents claimed was improper manure spreading. Residents cited among other things application of liquid manure that took place during a heavy rainstorm. The DNR ruled in June that the dairy did not violate DNR rules.
Krug has opposed the new dairy, asking the DNR in 2014 to deny the Golden Sands permit application. He cited concerns about the facility’s 33 proposed high-capacity wells and an outbreak at the time of dangerous E. coli bacteria in Nepco Lake and Lake Wazeecha. The Wood County Health Department did not trace the bacteria to a specific source.
Krug sometimes finds himself on the opposite side from many fellow Republicans on this issue.
“I’m not necessarily frustrated with my caucus, it’s just a helpful hint to them that over the last three sessions, as much yelling and hollering as I’ve been doing about this, it’s time we start working on it.”
Assembly Republicans are not taking Krug’s chances for re-election to the 72nd Assembly District for granted. The Republican Assembly Campaign Committee gave Krug $12,000, one of just six candidates so far to receive five-figure support from the committee.
“My district is always going to be competitive,” Krug said. “After redistricting, it’s a 50.1 percent seat … It’s going to be a tight race no matter what.”
Kewaunee residents angry
Elsewhere in the state, constituents and lawmakers face other tensions over the management of water. The DNR and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency held a joint meeting in June in Luxemburg in Kewaunee County to present possible solutions drafted by volunteers and officials to the bacteria and nitrate contaminating area wells.
In the audience were two men who will square off in the Nov. 8 election to represent the Assembly’s 1st District: Incumbent Rep. Joel Kitchens, R-Sturgeon Bay, and Democratic challenger Lynn Utesch, a beef farmer and environmental activist from Kewaunee.
Kitchens paired up with Krug in 2014 on a piece of legislation that would have created tougher regulations for high-capacity wells in environmentally sensitive areas. The measure never got a hearing. In an interview, Kitchens said it is “virtually impossible” to pass any new laws that would add more regulation in the Republican-run Legislature.
“It (the water issue) affects our areas very directly, mine and Rep. Krug’s, so obviously we have no choice but to talk about it,” Kitchens said. “It’s becoming more and more visible.”
The controversy over water quality has prompted the Walker administration to propose development of new rules that would set stricter standards for manure spreading in areas such as Kewaunee County with shallow soils and fractured bedrock. In proposing the rule, DNR acknowledged that existing statewide regulations do not adequately protect ground and surface water from contamination in vulnerable areas.
But environmental groups, including Clean Wisconsin and Midwest Environmental Advocates, have criticized DNR for pulling back on more stringent rules that had called for limits on controversial liquid manure spraying and other restrictions on CAFOs.
Utesch and other like-minded citizens petitioned the EPA to investigate the contamination in Kewaunee County. An EPA representative told the crowd of roughly 150 in Luxemburg the agency has no authority in the matter.
“I certainly appreciate the fact that folks would like clean water today,” said Tinka Hyde, director of the EPA’s water division for several Midwestern states. “I work in a world of rules and regulations and allocated budgets that tell me what I can and can’t do … I don’t have the authority to regulate private wells. I have the authority to regulate public water supply systems, and those are different things.”
In an interview, Utesch, a member of the DNR workgroups, said that is not good enough.
“This is a public health emergency we’re having here, and there are emergency measures that can be put in place if the Legislature and the governor wanted to actually do something about these issues,” Utesch said.
The DNR panels forwarded several possible solutions for the county’s water woes, recommending, among other things, $300,000 in state funds for emergency water supplies and providing residents with replacement wells, adding DNR staff, stricter rules for areas vulnerable to groundwater pollution and greater enforcement and oversight of permits.
The agency told the EPA in late July that in addition to more limits on manure spreading in Kewaunee County, it is also considering shifting resources toward stepped up oversight and enforcement of existing CAFO rules.
Kitchens, a veterinarian and first-term lawmaker, favors that rule change. Beyond that, however, Kitchens said voluntary measures would be more effective than new laws, saying “the majority of farmers want to do the right thing.”
But a 2015 study conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Extension and UW-Green Bay found that merely encouraging farmers to adopt practices that protect groundwater did not reduce the number of “brown water incidents.”
“I hope that people will really stand back and look at what’s happened because, in political terms, there’s been an awful lot accomplished in the last year and half or so,” Kitchens said. “Things are never going to move as quickly as people want them to. You can’t blame people; if they have a bad well they want it right tomorrow. But by political standards, things are moving pretty darn quickly.”
But Utesch said voluntary measures will not reduce pollution from large farming operations.
“I am a farmer,” Utesch said. “I do believe in farming. I think actually what is taking place here is that farmers are not being represented. What’s being represented in this area is agri-business.”
Dairy Business Association government affairs director John Holevoet said he favors farmers working with the public and the DNR toward “viable, long-term solutions to issues we’re having and other places in the country are having.”
“I think it’s actually an exciting time,” he added. “There’s a lot of good work being done.”
But while stakeholders argue over what the rules should be, and legislators return to their districts to prepare for November, conflicts over pollution from agricultural facilities continue.
In early July, manure from a large Calumet County farm, spilled into Plum Creek after heavy rains, killing fish in a stream that runs into the Fox River. The DNR is investigating the spill at Shiloh Dairy, which is owned by Gordon Spiers, the president of the Dairy Business Association.
Water at issue in Senate race
Water quality also has become injected into the U.S. Senate race, as Democrat Feingold tries to win back the seat he lost to Johnson six years ago.
Feingold has blasted Johnson for voting to block a federal rule that expands water bodies protected by the Clean Water Act — such as lakes, streams and oceans — to include connected waters such as tributaries and wetlands. The rule — which Senate Republicans unsuccessfully attempted to kill — is on hold because of a legal challenge.
“Senator Johnson ignored the water contamination crisis in Kewaunee County for too long – even as residents begged for help,” Feingold spokeswoman Amelia Penniman said in an email. “Instead, he sided with the big polluters and called water safety measures ‘ludicrous.’ ”
Johnson’s campaign maintains the Waters of the U.S. rule would give Washington too much control over Wisconsin.
Johnson spokesman Brian Reisinger accused Feingold of “siding with the EPA over Wisconsin farmers and small businesses.” He called the rule “a burdensome and costly regulation,” adding, “Senator Feingold may not understand that overregulation kills jobs, but Ron Johnson does.”
Reisinger declined to address Kewaunee County’s problems specifically. But asked by the Door County Daily News.com in February how the water contamination could be fixed, Johnson said he believes less regulation is the key to a cleaner environment.
“If you want to protect the environment, you want a strong economy,” Johnson said. “One of the things that I’m doing as chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs is looking at reducing that regulatory burden.”
Coverage of environmental issues by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) is supported by The Joyce Foundation. Full disclosure: In 2014, two years before he became a political candidate, Lynn Utesch and his wife, Nancy, contributed $500 to the Center. The nonprofit Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.