Hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin residents are at risk of illness from waterborne pathogens in private and public drinking water supplies
Late on a winter night in 2004 in Kewaunee County, six-month-old Samantha Treml was rushed to an emergency room, violently ill from bathing in water poisoned by manure spread on a nearby frozen field that seeped into the home’s private well. The rest of her family got sick, too.
In 2014, seven people visiting Door County were sickened after manure from a large farm made its way into a home’s private water well.
In 2015, Kewaunee County Board member Chuck Wagner discovered that the new $10,000 well he was forced to install two years earlier was again contaminated with viruses and cow manure. Wagner and his wife now use a reverse osmosis system to filter the water before drinking or cooking while they contemplate whether to dig a second new well.
And this year, the Algoma School District is offering free water to residents whose wells are contaminated, although that source has been shut down a few times after vandals damaged the dispenser. In early March, a group of local residents asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to provide emergency water for Kewaunee County residents with contaminated drinking water.
“It’s astonishing, the number of people who can’t use their drinking water,” said Algoma School District Superintendent Nick Cochart, whose own well is polluted.
Between 2007 and 2010, an estimated 18 percent of 3,868 private wells in Wisconsin tested positive for coliform bacteria — an indicator of disease-causing bacteria, viruses or parasites — according to a 2013 study by researchers with the state Department of Health Services. That translates into as many as 169,200 of the 940,000 Wisconsin households served by private wells exposed to disease-causing pathogens.
The problem also plagues municipal water systems where coliform bacteria accounts for most of the violations of health standards recorded each year. The 2014 Department of Natural Resources drinking water report on the state’s public water systems found 3.7 percent, or 420 of the 11,420 systems, had detectable levels of coliform.
The report said those 420 systems serve about 92,290 people. Most of the violations, 351, were in small public water systems serving motels, restaurants, churches and campgrounds.
Contamination by pathogens is of special concern because unlike pollution by metals or chemicals, pathogens can sicken people after just a single exposure. The gastrointestinal illnesses that result can be life-threatening for people with weakened immune systems such as the sick, elderly and infants.
Pathogens such as bacteria, viruses and parasites are the most frequent causes of illnesses in private water systems, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Whether it was manure spread irresponsibly on a frozen field, a septic system compromised by pollution-prone geology or untreated municipal drinking water, incidents of pathogens in drinking water in Wisconsin have revealed weaknesses in government oversight of this most basic and necessary resource, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism found.
Committees formed as a result of contamination in Kewaunee County recently proposed steps to be taken by the DNR, state lawmakers and others to better protect Wisconsin’s drinking water from agricultural pollution.
These work groups, composed of farmers and residents and federal, state and local officials, were formed after Kewaunee County residents petitioned the EPA in 2014 for help with the county’s water problems.
The recommendations included $300,000 to provide “reparations,” including emergency safe water supplies, treatment systems and new wells for households whose drinking water has been contaminated by livestock manure. Other proposals included voluntary restrictions on spreading manure on sensitive lands, additional staff, heightened oversight and more timely response and enforcement to complaints by the DNR.
George Althoff, DNR spokesman, said the agency is “actively working on formulating short-term and long-term plans to address water quality issues in Kewaunee County.” He added that “this has been and is a priority for the agency.”
“I think we’re making progress,” agreed Russ Rasmussen, a DNR natural resource manager who is coordinating the Kewaunee County effort.
But some residents and others remain skeptical that the DNR will take meaningful action, and they criticize the agency for taking too long to address what some are calling a crisis.
In March, Midwest Environmental Advocates, the public interest law firm that petitioned the EPA on behalf of Kewaunee County residents, shot off another letter to the agency slamming the lack of progress, saying there still has been no “direct action to provide local residents with clean, reliable drinking water.”
The delayed response to the region’s drinking water problems also has attracted the attention of U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin. Baldwin in March sent a letter to the heads of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the EPA requesting “immediate attention to this urgent public health issue and your assistance in making safe drinking water options available as soon as possible."
One-third of wells unsafe
Recent testing funded by the DNR and carried out by the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh showed the extent of the problem in Kewaunee County, with more than one-third of the 320 wells tested found unsafe to use. Those 110 wells had unsafe levels of coliform, E. coli or nitrate.
Any amount of coliform is considered unsafe. Of the wells found to be unsafe by the DNR testing, 27 percent had coliform; and five wells, or 2 percent, were contaminated by E. coli, which can come from human or animal waste. The second phase of the study will show the exact source of the pollutants.
Wagner discovered in the most recent round of testing that his new well — which he built in 2013 to replace an old contaminated well — is now tainted by four bovine viruses as well as nitrate.
Wagner, who served for 10 years on the state’s Land and Water Conservation Board, said he is convinced clean water and agriculture can exist side by side, but he and other residents are tired of what they say is inaction by the DNR.
“We’re getting mad,” Wagner said.
As for the Tremls, the family eventually was awarded an $80,000 settlement from the insurance company for Stahl Farms, which spread the manure that sent Samantha, now 12, to the hospital. Judy Treml said her family moved to Green Bay over concerns that the water in heavily farmed Kewaunee County is unsafe. The farm also paid a $50,000 fine to the state for violating its DNR permit.
Treml said she believes her family’s move away from Kewaunee County was the right decision.
“This past summer several families had wells that were contaminated because of malfunctions at a farm manure lagoon,” she said. “In Kewaunee County, the problems have gotten even more horrific. In 10 years, it hasn’t improved at all.”
Big farms, big waste
Kewaunee County is home to 20,574 people and 76,000 cows, according to county data. It has one of Wisconsin’s highest concentrations of large dairy farms, known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or CAFOs. Such farms, which have up to 8,000 head of cattle, can produce as much feces as a city, and most of it ends up on nearby farm fields.
Kewaunee County’s 16 CAFOs contribute the bulk of the more than 555 million gallons of liquid manure that are spread on the county’s fields each year, county figures show.
The likelihood that manure from such large farms will contain one or more pathogens is “very high,” according to the EPA, because of the sheer number of animals housed in such operations.
Manure is a veritable stew of more than 150 pathogens that can make people sick, according to a report from the National Association of Local Boards of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
These pathogens include E. coli, Salmonella, Giardia and Cryptosporidium. All can cause severe diarrhea and can be deadly for those with weakened immune systems. Infants and young children, pregnant women, the elderly, people who are HIV-positive and those who have undergone chemotherapy — about 20 percent of the U.S. population — are most at risk.
Proposals aim to improve water
Legislation aimed at bolstering protections against manure pollution in areas with fractured bedrock, such as Kewaunee County, was introduced by Democratic lawmakers in January.
“We are dealing with a public health crisis,” said state Rep. Eric Genrich, D-Green Bay, who co-authored the bill with state Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay. “We have communities in northeast Wisconsin where half of the wells that are tested are contaminated and the water is undrinkable, where residents no longer have access to safe, clean drinking water. That is not acceptable.”
The bill did not advance in the Republican-controlled Legislature. State Rep. Joel Kitchens, R-Sturgeon Bay, called it a “political stunt.” He said it was not a serious effort because Hansen and Genrich did not consult him or other Republicans.
In the meantime, Kitchens has introduced a bill of his own that would raise the maximum household income from $60,000 to $90,000 under the Well Compensation Grant Program, which helps owners pay for replacement of wells contaminated by livestock feces. But he acknowledged the change is not a solution to the pollution problems.
Three counties — Brown, Manitowoc and Kewaunee — have acted on their own, passing ordinances that prohibit winter manure spreading or restrict spreading on land with porous bedrock. One of the Kewaunee County work groups formed after residents petitioned the EPA for help has proposed a number of restrictions on spreading manure, including a ban on spreading where bedrock is covered by less than 24 inches of soil.
Kewaunee County’s ordinance passed in the face of strong opposition from the Dairy Business Association, the Midwest Food Producers Association and other agriculture groups. They contend the county does not have the authority to pass such limits, which they say are unnecessary because the state DNR already regulates groundwater.
But a study of the new county regulations, published in 2015 in the journal Resources, concluded the rules have caused “statistically significant reductions” in well contamination compared to other counties with fractured bedrock that only offered voluntary education on best practices to farmers and manure spreaders. The study showed no improvement in those counties.
Tim Trotter, executive director of the DBA, the state’s most powerful dairy lobby, said dairy farmers are serious about ensuring clean and safe water. But owners of some large-scale farms insist more research is needed. They say any new state regulations also must take into account the impact on agriculture.
“I think with any new rules there should be a balance between safety and being practical,” said John Pagel, who owns a large dairy farm and serves on the Kewaunee County Board, chairing the Land and Water Conservation Committee. “We need to keep working together to make sure farming practices are done the right way and at the same time set goals that are achievable.”
Lee Luft, a Kewaunee County Board member who is part of the DNR work groups, said residents will be watching the agency’s actions closely.
“If these recommendations are not implemented,” he said, “my sense is that whatever remaining confidence the residents have in the DNR will evaporate.”
Dangerously high contamination
Many users of private wells may be ingesting pathogens unknowingly because, according to the state health department, only about 16 percent of owners statewide have them tested.
The Tremls tested their private water well after Samantha and other members of the family got sick. The astronomically high levels of contamination caused the county to advise the family to shut off the water and get the children out of the house.
The E. coli count in the Treml well was 2,800 parts per milliliter and the coliform count was 9,800. The EPA considers any amount of E. coli to be dangerous.
The Tremls later discovered the DNR had allowed a neighboring farmer to spread liquid manure on frozen land next to their home after the farmer ran out of storage space. Manure spread on frozen ground can run off into surface water and get into the drinking water supply.
Judy Treml had hoped their ordeal would spur the DNR to action. That did not happen.
“It does make me angry,” Treml said. “I thought they would use our case to learn how to avoid these issues altogether.”
Groups charge DNR regulation lax
The DNR’s seeming reluctance to address concerns about pollution from the big farms is not new, according to an April 2015 investigation by a group called the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project, based in the state of Oregon. The group’s “Rap Sheets” report documented a lack of DNR enforcement on large-scale farms in Kewaunee County going back to the mid-1980s.
Using the DNR’s own records, the group uncovered dozens of instances in which large dairy farms violated anti-pollution laws. It found cases including overapplication of manure, failure to report spills, failure to maintain adequate storage, and spreading manure too close to homes and waterways — incidents in which DNR records do not show follow-up to ensure problems were corrected.
The agency disputed the report — saying it was enforcing the law to its fullest authority — but allegations of lax regulation continued to surface.
In October, Midwest Environmental Advocates filed another petition, this time on behalf of 16 residents from across Wisconsin, asking the EPA to rescind the state’s authority to enforce discharge permits under the Clean Water Act if changes are not forthcoming.
And in December, 45 former DNR employees, many with decades of experience, supported that petition in a letter to the EPA. Among the concerns they cited was lax enforcement against polluters, including CAFOs.
Cochart, Algoma’s school superintendent, said he is fed up with delays by DNR in getting help to county residents. “All they do is drag their feet,” he said.
“Somebody needs to provide clean water. The DNR certainly isn’t,” Cochart added. “To me, it’s a basic human right to have clean drinking water. But there are a lot of people here who are spending a lot of money to have clean water.”
Luft, the Kewaunee County Board member, said the high levels of lead in drinking water that plagued Flint, Michigan, are reminiscent of problems in his county.
“It brought home the fact to me that we have a very substantial number of people living without access to safe water,” Luft said. “They live a second-class lifestyle because of it.”
This report was produced as part of journalism classes participating in The Confluence, a collaborative project involving the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The nonprofit Center (www.WisconsinWatch.org) 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.