Chaq Talk: Portage County at a Crossroads

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.

  1. “Nitrates aren’t that dangerous…levels aren’t rising.” False on both counts. According to numerous National Institute of Health studies, nitrate exposure has been “linked to colorectal cancer, thyroid disease, and neural tube defects” (premature and post birth complications in children). More chillingly, “Many studies observed increased risk with ingestion of water nitrate levels that were below regulatory limits.” Meaning, even at levels below the current standard of 10 mg/L, negative health effects can be documented. (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6068531).

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.

  1. “Septic systems are major contributors to nitrate problems.” False. In that same 2017 report, 90% of nitrate pollution was attributed to agriculture, with minimal impact by septic systems and lawncare products. A 2021 UW Extension Report now puts that total at 94% from agriculture, especially concentrated in areas with monocropping of corn and potatoes and large numbers of livestock. In Portage County, for example, the Townships of Pine Grove, Buena Vista, and Almond have the highest percentage of contaminated wells at 45%, 42%, and 34%, respectively.
  2. “It will raise food prices and other costs greatly to get clean groundwater.” False. In 1990, the same cost argument was made against policies to reduce acid rain, insisting it would cost billions of dollars and lead to the “destruction of the Midwest economy.” (US Corn Growers Association) None of that happened; instead, new rules produced air and water quality benefits at modest financial costs. Additionally, land management improvements required for cleaner groundwater do not mean adopting organic methods. Cost comparisons to consumers using those prices, as some have suggested, are disingenuous. In addition, inaction on nitrates currently costs Wisconsin residents $74 million per year in health care treatments according to Wisconsin Department of Health officials, an amount that would be significantly lowered by improved groundwater quality.
  3. “It will take a drastic change in lifestyle and ruin the family farm tradition and our way of living to address groundwater pollution.” False. Family farm struggles and foreclosures are well documented, but it would be a stretch to say that groundwater quality regulations that do not yet exist are the cause. Many observers instead point out farming as a way of life has been decimated by the same industrialized processes of modern agriculture that result in poor groundwater quality. Those include the rise of large CAFOs and cropping operations that rely on more intense nitrogen and pesticide use and additional capital, the concentration of legislated tax benefits to those same operators, and the symbiotic lobbying by manufacturers and suppliers of farm products that focus agricultural programs on their own financial benefits to the detriment of small farm viability. For example, a 2020 Texas A&M study found the top 6% of corporate farming operations received over 70% of benefits.

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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