New Hope Town Board holds public forum to discuss water quality issues
By JIM McKNIGHT
Special to The Gazette
Residents of the town of New Hope gathered Wednesday, Aug. 17, at the Central Wisconsin Environmental Station to discuss recent water quality issues the town faces and to plan possible action that the town could take to protect groundwater and surface water quality from further degradation.
The meeting was hosted by the New Hope Town Board and was attended by more than 125 people who spoke about recent developments in the town. Three main areas of concern were the continued expansion of high capacity wells in the town and the Central Sands watershed; the spreading of municipal waste from the city of Appleton in the town that contains high nitrate levels and trace toxic elements; and a recently-filed application to spray liquid waste through irrigation systems on the fragile soils and federally protected watersheds in the town.
In summary, spreading of Appleton municipal waste in the town of New Hope was widely unknown by most people. It was clear that some town officials, County Executive Patty Dreier and most residents were unaware it has been happening in the town since 2012.
Concern was voiced with the lack of oversight of the permitted process, including lack of soil testing for carrying capacity of specific fields for additional nitrates, a lack of monitoring and adherence to spreading guidelines recommended by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) – which relies totally on self-reporting by municipalities – and the long-term effect of introducing toxic substances like heavy metals including lead and mercury to the New Hope watershed.
It was pointed out that the DNR currently does not allow food for human consumption to be grown in those fields where the municipal waste is spread. Therefore, it was suggested the town could pass an ordinance requiring existing standards to be actively enforced and any municipality spreading waste must prove its compliance to those minimal standards and provide independent monitoring with test wells.
Due to the fragile nature of New Hope soils as explained by University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point geologist Ray Reser, residents said an additional lowering of nitrate spreading rates should be sought by the town in its ordinances.
A recent court case in Kewaunee County overturned the DNR’s refusal to act to protect groundwater quality from nitrate contamination and forced compliance to federal clean water standards, which are stricter and could be identified in an ordinance as New Hope’s minimal standards. Gov. Scott Walker recently asked the legislature to study the manure issue but has limited the discussion of nitrate levels to a very narrow list of soil types ordered by the federal court.
Several residents, county water officials and consulting scientists present spoke on the need to expand legislative action to include tougher standards for nitrate levels for all soil types in Wisconsin. Hearings on limited new standards are expected when the legislature convenes this winter but several residents voiced frustration at the way the state has acted to take away local controls on water issues and has cut funding levels and enforcement by agencies meant to protect water quality.
As in the case with municipal waste spreading issue, soil type is critical to determine nitrate spreading rates, and Reser said 94 percent of New Hope soils are designated as high-risk areas for any water-born pollutant because of their high porosity levels.
Such soils are extremely sensitive to nitrate overuse and may not be suited for the amount of nitrates currently allowed by the DNR written rules, he said.
In any case, due to this existing soil profile – found in the entire Central Sands area, which includes the Town of New Hope – and the rate that nitrates and pesticides can rapidly enter the groundwater, aerial spreading of liquid manure mixed with water through center pivot irrigation systems is an especially bad idea, he said.
The fact that the initial spreading is to take place within 1,000 feet of Rheinhardt Lake and in a pothole whose depth is only 10 feet above the present level of the lake was alarming to residents. It was also discussed that the spreading is taking place in the headwaters of the Trout Creek and Nace Creek watersheds, which are federally-protected areas, and that the town may be legally liable for any damages by failing to protect the watershed as required by federal law.
There is absolute certainty that aerial spraying will result in pollution of the Nace Creek and Trout Creek Watershed at some point in time, Reser said.
An ordinance to ban aerial spraying in New Hope is being considered, given the health risks and threat of future legal action by the Environmental Protection Agency and the DNR ordered to enforce standards required by Federal Clean Water Act.
Central Wisconsin groundwater has been studied since the 1970s and every scientific study has shown the same consistent findings. The last two studies, by UW-Extension hydrologist George Kraft in 2009 and a joint study by the U.S. Geological Survey and Wisconsin state hydrologist in 2016 (fyi.uwex.edu/littleplovermodel) both confirmed that high-capacity wells in the Central Sands have affected groundwater levels and surface waters by their impact.
All studies concluded the effects of the wells are cumulative and every well added contributes to the continuing decline of groundwater. Wells used for agriculture – 85 percent of all high-capacity wells in central Wisconsin – are especially a problem because the majority of the pumping takes place in a small time-frame, making total recharge by rainwater impossible.
Residents expressed frustration that even though scientific studies have been unequivocal in their findings, the political will to bring all parties to the negotiating table and use the template provided by the 2016 study to regulate water use and preserve the resource has been lacking.
In fact, some residents said, while users continue to ask for more research, more new wells are being approved, making a coherent plan an even trickier possibility.
Residents heard from Rep. Katrina Shankland and others that given the political climate in Madison that has eliminated local controls over many water issues, new ground may have to be broken to pass an ordinance in New Hope seeking to ban any more high-capacity wells in the town.
Possible action could be to change town zoning regulations to require conditional permits for land use with irrigation systems similar to what towns in the western part of the state have used to control noise and dust from frac sand mining operations and what Bayfield County residents have passed in an attempt to control a proposed CAFO operation near Lake Superior.
Shankland, Dreier and others expressed a willingness to help with finding legal advice for the town to focus on other options available.
New Hope Town Board members said the next step would be to form a steering committee to work on further defining the issue and seek possible solutions for the town.
Editor’s note: Jim McKnight is a town of New Hope resident who attended the town of New Hope meeting Wednesday, Aug. 17.