By Jim McKnight
In the run up to the April 2022 spring election, candidates and voters of Portage County agreed that restoring healthy groundwater was an important issue. Now that the results are in, it is time to set aside the intensity of the campaigns, and again look dispassionately at the problem and work as neighbors towards solutions.
By its nature, a short campaign period does not allow for an in-depth examination of a complicated issue like groundwater pollution or for candidates’ perceptions and positions to evolve through in-depth discussions with voters. In answers to candidate questionnaires for County Supervisor, for example, a wide range of knowledge on groundwater science was evident among the election participants, with no opportunity for further debates to take place. County residents must now hope that new County government members will quickly get up to speed on the known science, honestly acknowledge the nature of the problem, and allow solutions to groundwater problems to move forward.
In that spirit, it is important to review some known facts here and correct some erroneous perceptions voiced in the campaign before they threaten the integrity of the discussions to come.
In addition, unsafe nitrate levels are now seen in 23% of private wells in the County, compared to 17% in 2017, the year the County Groundwater Report calling for immediate measures to address the crisis was unanimously adopted by the County Board.
By contrast, new Federal programs to pay farmers who make changes in land management practices that result in better water quality help small farmers. The same practices that help restore healthy soil and take advantage of natural processes to break down nutrients and limit pests and disease, allow operators to reduce fertilizer and pesticide inputs, raising profits and ensuring long-term financial viability.
That template to cover transition costs to new techniques may be a solution in Nelsonville, where unsafe groundwater was found in 60% of the Village wells in 2018. Further tests identified farming practices on surrounding fields as the source of nitrates. A well-planned system of monitoring wells, currently in the planning stage, would pinpoint effective management strategies for individual fields and secure transition grants. It is a logical first step to honestly address the problem and a win-win situation for Portage County residents.
Portage County recently received the dubious scientific distinction of having the worst nitrate problems in the state directly linked to agricultural activities (UW Extension, Dec 2021). During the campaign, an often-repeated refrain was that someone who understood agriculture could bring all parties together and restore healthy groundwater. Obviously, the time is now.
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