New Hope will consider new ordinance to protect county’s groundwater
Citizens of the town of New Hope will introduce a proposed public health and groundwater protection ordinance at the Groundwater Citizens Advisory Committee (GCAC) meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 15, in Conference Room C of the Aging & Disability Resource Center in Stevens Point.
The ordinance seeks to “protect the public’s health and welfare by preventing the contamination of Portage County’s groundwater through local regulation of land use management practices and water extraction.”
The proposed ordinance is a result of growing concerns on groundwater quality in the town of New Hope, specifically in reference to nitrates.
The Dec. 15 presentation will cover the ordinance in detail and include a slide show. The ordinance (and the 2016 Draft Portage County Groundwater Management Plan) can be reviewed at www.co.portage.wi.us/Home/Components/Calendar/Event/2584/19.
Through a study conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP) Environmental Analysis Lab, 22 percent of 3,107 Portage County wells tested with nitrate levels exceeded minimum health standards in the last 10 years. The Wisconsin Department of Health Services sets the maximum limit at less than 10 parts per million (ppm), with an action limit of 5 ppm.
Ray Reser, director of the UWSP Museum of Natural History, and Anne Abbott, retired professor of health promotion and founder of Abbott Solutions Inc., are the primary advocates for the ordinance. Both are residents in the town of New Hope.
Having grown up on a farm and lived in New Hope for almost 50 years, Reser said he has seen water quality degrade.
“With the Clean Water Act, (water quality) seemed to be moving in the right direction, but now we are seeing a real change,” he said.
The ordinance gives legislative action to components of the 2016 Draft Portage County Groundwater Management Plan (GWMP). Proposed restrictions pertain to land application of nitrogen fertilizers and animal, municipal or human waste. If enacted several components of currently allowed agricultural practices would have to change.
Steve Bradley, Portage County conservationist, said local farmers are encouraged to partake in the Nutrient Management Plan program to avoid overuse of nitrogen. However, according to the November 2015 Wisconsin Nutrient Management Update, only 6 percent of Portage County’s cropland was included in certified nutrient management plans. The ordinance could make this program mandatory for those applying nitrogen.
The proposed ordinance includes prohibited dates from Jan. 1 through April 15 for land spreading of waste and storage of waste on permeable soils, consideration of precipitation and a suspension of aerial spraying until best management practices can be established.
The ordinance is being introduced to GCAC at the same time the committee plans to accept the revision of the 2016 Draft Portage County GWMP after public comments. They are separate issues, but New Hope citizens would like to see some components of the GWMP reflect the nitrate concerns of Portage County citizens, Reser said.
“The plan is fabulous,” he said. “We are just saying there are new studies suggesting the addition of specific information.”
GCAC is the best place for an ordinance pertaining to groundwater to begin. Though it is not necessary for the committee to view it, many County Board members look to the advisement of GCAC, said Jenny McNelly, Portage County water resource specialist.
When it comes to new legislation, it is possible for the wishes of county government to be restricted by state and federal laws.
“Sometimes our hands are tied,” she said. “It is hard to get ahead with state regulations changing so frequently.”
In one aspect, Wisconsin state statute 92.11 states, “to promote soil and water conservation or non-point source water pollution abatement, a county, city, village or town may enact ordinances for the regulation of land use, land management and pollutant management practices.”
In another aspect, it is possible there are other more specific state statutes that limit the role the County can play in management of some of these items, McNelly said.
Based on Wisconsin state statute 92.15, both the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection’s (DATCP) and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) would need to approve any ordinance that is more stringent than state standards and prohibitions. Also, a local unit of government may not apply a regulation to a livestock operation in existence on Oct. 14, 1997, unless there is cost-sharing available, said Bradley.
“This next GCAC meeting will most likely only introduce the topic of the ordinance,” she said. “Further discussion may take place at subsequent meetings.”
The ordinance is similar to others passed in counties such as Kewaunee County near Lake Michigan. Even though Kewaunee County and Portage County are geologically different, Portage County and the surrounding areas are still very susceptible to similar consequences of nitrogen overuse, Reser said.
Portage County’s Central Sands region allows water to percolate quickly due to its sandy composition. Because of the chemical properties of nitrogen, the element readily attaches to water to form nitrate. When the soil is unable to attenuate, reduce the force of, nitrates, they accumulate in groundwater, said Chris Cirmo, GCAC representative for the town of Amherst and dean of the College of Letters and Science at UWSP.
“Additionally, if you move water around a lot, you will pick up constituents of the soil,” he said. “More irrigation means more (nitrates) will enter the groundwater.”
As groundwater becomes drinking water, high nitrate consumption can lead to numerous health impacts (that will be discussed in detail at the meeting) such as, blue baby syndrome, various heart diseases and cancer, Abbott said.
“When nitrates continue to increase, it becomes a public health issue,” she said. “It’s a huge issue that is not getting enough attention.”
“The conversation on groundwater has been going on forever. Some of the players keep changing, making it hard to continue,” said Edward Burns, chair of GCAC and a Portage County farmer.
“I fear that if law goes through that could shut down agricultural operations, it could have an impact on all communities, especially smaller ones,” he said. “The ordinance may be too broad.”
Considering most nitrogen is applied to land for agricultural purposes, the ordinance focuses on fertilization techniques. However, Reser said it is not meant to target all farmers.
“I am pro-farming and don’t want to see the rural landscape change,” Reser said. “It’s not the small farms that are making the negative impact. It’s the handful of large agricultural producers.”
“If there is an advocate for sustainable land use it would be the farmer because their livelihoods depend on it,” Burns said.
“Currently, there is no continual monitoring program for private well testing,” Cirmo said. “The only way to determine there is a problem is if there is a systematic method.”
According to the Portage County’s 2017 budget, $25,000 will be used for groundwater sampling using a grid system design across the county. Nitrate and bacteria (E. coli) data will be mapped and the public will be informed on the results, as well as health implications.
“The plan is to establish a baseline to know where we are at and where we want to be,” McNelly said.
Nitrate tests are relatively inexpensive and serve as an indicator of land-use impacts. They can also correlate with the presence of pesticides and other components that could cause health impacts, said Kevin Masarik, outreach specialist for the Center for Watershed Science and Education, at a recent Central Wisconsin Environmental Station presentation on groundwater.
Private well owners are also responsible for conducting their own testing and are recommended to do so yearly, he said.
Healthcare is the biggest expense nationally, Abbott said.
“Most people don’t view it as a systemwide problem,” she said. “If you look at health from a population perspective you can get a better idea.”