Pleasant Lake in Waushara and Marquette counties lives up to its name. The serene 120-acre lake — located mostly in the town of Coloma about 60 miles west of Oshkosh — is ideal for swimming, fishing, boating and other simple pleasures. For more than a century, full-time and seasonal residents and tourists have enjoyed the central Wisconsin lake, which can be accessed from public boat landings.
However, the issuance in 2016 of two permits by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources — for a high-capacity well on a nearby farm and a new dairy farm — posed imminent threats to the lake’s water level and even the lake itself. That’s why owners of lakeside and other nearby properties decided to purchase and conserve the 105-acre Bula Farm to protect Pleasant Lake and its watershed lands — and to challenge the DNR permits in court.
The most-recent owner of the Bula Farm purchased the property in 2015 and obtained a permit in 2016 from the DNR to install a high-capacity well for irrigating the land.
In light of that, residents determined they should buy the Bula Farm to deed-restrict the property to prevent any future high-capacity well installation and to stop manure spreading on the property now and in the future.
Pleasant Lake has a maximum depth of 24 feet. Research indicated that a high-capacity well could draw down the lake by at least 4 feet from that well alone.
In May 2017, Pleasant Lake Management District members voted to purchase the land for $400,000 through a 20-year loan, with the sale completed June 30. A committee was formed to evaluate potential future uses of the property.
Rosemary Schwantes said she and her husband Peter supported the plan to purchase the adjacent 105-acre property.
“It is the only hope we have for the continuation of the lake as we know it,” she said.
The Brookfield couple has owned a vacation cottage across the road from the lake since 1989. Schwantes said the lake is 5 feet lower than its high-water mark when they bought the property. “So another 4-foot or more loss would be very significant. Land values go way down if the water goes down.”
Fears of manure
Nearby, the proposed Richfield Dairy has not yet been built, but a renewed permit was issued for it in 2016. In that permit, the Bula Farm was registered as a designated receiver of manure from the dairy — another concern for the residents.
Manure spreading has been found to cause groundwater and surface-water pollution from nitrates and other contaminants of concern, especially in vulnerable areas such as Wisconsin’s Central Sands.
According to the Sierra Club’s website, “When (concentrated animal feeding operation) wastes are applied to farm fields, water pollution can be caused by over-application of wastes, direct runoff into surface waters, or by traveling through the ground or catch basins into field tiles or drainage ditches that discharge directly into surface waters. Tests have shown that waste applied to the surface of a field can take as little as 45 minutes to reach the field tiles 3 to 4 feet below the surface.”
In addition, there’s concern about property values. The Wisconsin State Journal reported Nov. 16, 2017, that the “Wisconsin Department of Revenue has found that homes near large dairy operations have been selling for as much as 13 percent below their assessed value in Kewaunee County, where odor, noise and water pollution from the sprawling feedlots have been a big problem.”
PLMD president Tom Kunes said that either a high-capacity well or manure spreading “would have destroyed natural habitats and the quality of the lake. That would have been very destructive.” He said there are also homeowners with private wells next to the farm property, which would be susceptible to contamination by nitrates or E. coli bacteria from runoff.
Organizing to protect the watershed
Property owners near Pleasant Lake began focusing on protecting its environmental integrity more than a decade ago. After research, community discussions and consultation with experts, they formed the Pleasant Lake Management District as a governmental body with taxing authority. The district is defined by the local watershed and includes 214 properties with lakeside access and in areas that could impact the watershed.
Kunes said the district was formed following the organization of a lake association decades ago to promote clean water and community relations and to address issues with invasive species.
Patrick Nehring, a University of Wisconsin Extension community agent and professor, helped residents navigate the process of completing the lake management plan between 2012 and 2015.
Data was gathered from the DNR, Waushara County Land Conservation and Zoning and other sources. Organizers enlisted resources through UW-Stevens Point to help with the plan’s development. Purchasing nearby farmland, if it became available for sale, was one option considered within the plan.
The PLMD also began raising money for legal services around the time the DNR granted the permit for the proposed Richfield Dairy. PLMD is fighting that permit. Kunes said, “It’s a very significant related legal issue, in addition to and separate from the farm purchase.”
The district also is fighting high-capacity wells — which recently became an even bigger problem.
In May 2016, Attorney General Brad Schimel issued an opinion that the DNR must no longer consider the cumulative effects of high-capacity wells on lakes, streams and groundwater when deciding whether to approve new high-capacity wells. That opinion affected about 200 high-capacity well permits that were on hold for further DNR review. The department soon issued all those permits.
Clean Wisconsin is contesting nine of the permits and PLMD is a party to contesting one of them, for a different nearby farm.
“It has become clear scientifically that CAFOs and croplands with high-capacity wells are already affecting the groundwater and many lakes and streams within the Central Sands area,” said Kunes.
Kunes noted long-term issues at stake: “Loss of lake water levels and contamination of private wells will result in degradation of both water quality and property values. This causes lake districts to spend money unnecessarily on legal actions to prevent water degradation and on purchase of nearby croplands to protect water resources.”