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Much of the groundwater in the towns of Onalaska and Holland contains nitrate levels considered unsafe for human consumption, with the threat especially high for infants and pregnant women, a new report shows.

The problem is not going away soon, and it could get worse without public policy changes that would be costly and probably politically difficult to enact.

That is the message shared last week from a report completed by La Crosse County’s Nitrate Well Water Task Force.

Major recommendations in the task force report include:

  • Developing an educational campaign to ensure residents are informed of potential risks, a campaign that would involve county and municipal governments, real-estate agents and builders.
  • Extending Holmen and Onalaska’s municipal water systems to help reduce use of contaminated private wells.
  • Limiting new residential development in the towns in areas where homes could not be connected to public water systems or safe community wells.
  • Renting or purchasing land now used for growing row crops and using the land for purposes other than agriculture (the chief source of nitrate pollution).
  • Require all new subdivisions to have “green zones” to protect wells. Green zones are areas where no chemicals, manure or other harmful substances would be added to the landscape.

The task force report also calls for revising existing state, county and municipal rules and formulating new ones to help prevent nitrate contamination and reduce human exposure to nitrates. For example, the county could pass an ordinance requiring all new septic systems — another source of contamination — include nitrate reduction treatment devices, which would add $10,000 to $20,000 to the cost of a septic system, according to the report.

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Jen Rombalski mug

Rombalski

“This is an issue that will require both short- and long-term actions,” said Jen Rombalski, the county’s health department director. “Our department will be working with our partners, to include the Health and Human Services Committee, to determine next steps. In the short term, it will be very important for residents new to the affected area to be aware of the nitrate issue and this will require a collaborative effort with realtors, home builders and others.”

Getting started

The task force started its work late last year, prompted by analysis of tests of about 540 private wells in the area of the towns west of Hwy. 35, including Brice Prairie. The tests, done in March and April 2017 after a public health notice was issued by the La Crosse County Health Department, found that 30 percent of the wells tested exceeded the 10 mg/L level, which is considered unsafe. And 60 percent of the wells tested at 5 mg/L (parts per million) or higher.

Considering that percentage of nitrate-contaminated private wells is almost four times the statewide average, the health department assembled a task force that included town residents and staff from several county departments.

The aim of the task force, partially funded by a grant from the Wisconsin Environmental Public Health Tracking Program, was to look at the causes of the contamination and develop recommendations for actions and public policy.

The county health department’s concern initially was spurred after it discovered a concentrated animal feeding operation in the town of Holland had been exceeding the standards for nitrates for years. The CAFO, Babcock Swine, was mentioned as an example in a 2016 state Legislative Audit Bureau report on deficiencies in state enforcement of Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits.

After the county received monitoring well test results from the Babcock Swine operation that had alarmingly high nitrate levels, the health department issued a notice urging residents in the towns to have their private wells tested. Routine annual well testing is something the health department encourages for all county homeowners, but this notice was a higher-level alert.

“Nitrate is not something you want to drink, especially if you’re a pregnant woman or a child under 6 months old because of the health effects,” said Jim Steinhoff, a retired health department staff member who chaired the task force.

Looking for causes

Further testing would be needed to definitively determine whether the nitrate contamination in the towns comes from agricultural operations, septic systems or fertilizer spread on lawns. But a statewide study looked at by the task force estimates that 90 percent of nitrate contamination in groundwater comes from agriculture, with 9 percent traced to septic systems and 1 percent coming from other sources.

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Jim Steinhoff, La Crosse County environmental health

Steinhoff

So is Babcock Swine a factor in widespread nitrate contamination in Holland and Onalaska? Not necessarily, said Steinhoff, noting that the flow of the underground aquifer moves toward the Mississippi River and the areas of the town with contaminated wells are not in the path from the CAFO.

But it’s possible, Steinhoff added, that some off-site wells could have contamination from the CAFO. Steinhoff said he talked to a geologist who said that when the river is in flood stage, it could temporarily change the direction of the aquifer’s flow.

In summer of 2017, Steinhoff noted, Babcock spread 10 million gallons of swine manure on 327 acres.

But there are plenty of other farm operations in Holland and Onalaska — roughly 16,000 acres of agricultural land. Steinhoff said the task force looked at a University of Wisconsin study that showed that even when farmers follow best practices in applying manure and other fertilizers to their land, the groundwater beneath these farms is always going to have elevated nitrate levels, and those contaminants flow with the aquifer.

“Even if you do everything perfectly, you’re still going to exceed the standard,” Steinhoff said.

The big problem for town residents in that part of Holland and Onalaska is the geology of the aquifer makes it especially susceptible to contaminants from the surface. The sand-and-gravel aquifer is only 10 to 20 feet below the surface, Steinhoff said, and there’s no layer of bedrock to keep contaminants from leeching directly into the groundwater.

Essentially, Steinhoff said, that area of Holland and Onalaska has the worst geology in the county in terms of groundwater exposure to pollution, and yet it’s heavily farmed and dotted with about 3,000 private septic systems.

About half the states in the country have regulations on septic systems, particularly systems that are in areas susceptible to groundwater contamination, but Wisconsin is not one of them. Wisconsin also does not require agricultural operations to protect groundwater resources to the same extent as other businesses.

“Wisconsin basically excludes agriculture from having to meet the drinking water standards,” Steinhoff said. “That’s a big issue.”

Reactions

Members of the county’s Health and Human Services Committee got their first look at the task force report last week and had high praise for the group that produced it.

“There are a lot of really good suggestions in here. I think the breadth of the suggestions is really terrific,” said Maureen Freedland, a county board member who sits on the committee. “We have learned so much and come so far that we need to continue on this in a cooperative way and take this all to heart and figure out what to do.”

Freedland noted that nitrate contamination is a concern across the state, and several other county board members on the committee emphasized that preventing groundwater pollution will require action in Madison. “If we do not continue to work to change state laws and agency rules, we’re never really going to solve the problem,” said board member Mike Giese.

A copy of the task force report was forwarded to the state Department of Natural Resources, but as of Friday it was too soon to tell whether it might spur any action at the state level. “We appreciate all the work the task force has put into the report, and we look forward to reviewing it,” DNR spokesman James Dick said.

Board member Monica Kruse cautioned that the county should emphasize local action because it can’t afford to put too much faith in the state jumping on the problem.

“This is a battle we need to fight at the local level because the state is not going to be our advocate,” Kruse said. “The problem is we need to do it sooner rather than later because the mitigation of the problem is really impossible once the damage is done.”

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Entertainment and county government reporter

Randy Erickson covers arts and entertainment and county government for the La Crosse Tribune. Contact him at 608-791-8219 or randy.erickson@lee.net.

(8) comments

You don't know me

Can you please ... for the love of everything... when you write about something like a problem w someone drinking water... POST THE RESOURCES on how someone gets their water tested... POST WHAT THE AFFECTS/A LINK TO WHAT THE AFFECTS are if you think you have water nitrate poisoning... how/who people CONTACTS to express our concerns? “Writing our representatives” is so BS because you get some stupid automated letter saying thank you! I know common sense is vote but at the same side of things that seems to be a gamble will they stay on your side when you voted for them! I think our system is flawed but if you’re going to report on something provide the information that saves lives, helps us resolve this issue, other than a collaboration “talk” let’s actually collaborate on how to Resolve this and the many other problems we have! Thank you Tribune

capedcrusader

Well I certainly agree with you. The article I posted below was from several years ago. And still nothing much done about the problem. I know the wheels of government can turn slowly but this is ridiculous. It shouldn't surprise me I guess the way they can get traffic islands and curb extensions built but take forever to fill in pot holes. Priorities, priorities.

GrandpaS

"You don't know me" suggested that area governments quit ignoring the problems and work toward identifying and fixing them. Wow. What a concept. It's called "Doing something." Hope the town boards and citizens heed You don't know me's advice. I think we need to get on their case to get at that. How much pig manure do you want to dump into your kids, your pets and yourselves?
That's not a joke or sarcasm, folks. It's what you're doing.

crank

I don't believe it would be terribly difficult to perform well water testing in Holland and Onalaska in the areas surrounding and 'down stream' of Babcock's swine operation to determine that is a primary source of this contamination. In addition, Holmen's waste water treatment plant emptying into Halfway Creek is another.

Any septic system or agricultural operation has the ability to contribute but measuring the concentrations from individual wells should provide a pretty good map to point to the source. Well water test results from various locations should already be available as data points. If not that, maybe follow the stink. Everyone seems to have a pretty good idea already. It seems common sense.

Why hasn't anyone done this? Why is La Crosse County waiting for the State to act? Why haven't residents with contaminated wells banded together? Certainly, a lawyer would/could eagerly organize a class-action lawsuit and perhaps empty Babcock's 'piggy' bank (*if that turns out to be the source) in order to provide remedy for those impacted by this.

*In case Babcock has eager lawyers too.

GrandpaS

Good specifics, crank. Very good specifics. Attention Town of Holland and Town of Onalaska officials: What crank proposes is NOT beyond the realm of possibility or something. It's very doable. May neighbors and I live in the Town of Onalaska. We don't want nitrate or pig manure in our drinking water. Does that seem like an unreasonable stance? Please get at this. Find the source(s) of this contamination, figure out how to fix it and then get at it. That is a very reasonable request from your constituents.

GrandpaS

One last comment to demonstrate the foolishness of not regulating the safety standards of our drinking water: "The problem is not going away soon, and it could get worse without public policy changes that would be costly and probably politically difficult to enact." End quote. Changing our water from life threatening to safe would "probably (be) politically difficult to enact." How on earth could that be a politically difficult act? Not dumping poison into your wife or baby's body IS NOT a political issue. Has America really gotten that brainwashed and/or just plain ignorant? Have YOU gotten that brainwashed or ignorant? You need to fix that. America will not survive with people like this running it.

GrandpaS

Here are the last two paragraphs of the article. Read them folks. Absorb them. Put your political biases aside listen. You really need to.
"Board member Monica Kruse cautioned that the county should emphasize local action because it can’t afford to put too much faith in the state jumping on the problem.

“This is a battle we need to fight at the local level because the state is not going to be our advocate,” Kruse said. “The problem is we need to do it sooner rather than later because the mitigation of the problem is really impossible once the damage is done.” "The state is not going to be our advocate." She's right. They've proven that. So how much water do we allow to become contaminated and how many people do we allow to get sick? This isn't a political issue, folks. It's a scientific, real life issue. Those still exist, regardless of Madison telling you otherwise. If you have any doubts about that, make yourself a cow manure float and sprinkle it with some poisonous chemicals. That is EXACTLY what you're doing to your - YOUR - drinking water. Even if you don't mind those things in your water, I know some people who DON'T want them in theirs.

GrandpaS

Consider this: "Much of the groundwater in the towns of Onalaska and Holland contains nitrate levels considered unsafe for human consumption, with the threat especially high for infants and pregnant women, a new report shows." We have chemicals in our drinking water that are dangerous to infants and pregnant women. The other big factor with Wisconsin's drinking water right now is how much cow and/or pig manure is going into that water from the so called "factory farms." The Republican troops, of course, are praising their efforts to decrease regulation and increase our freedom to put those things into our drinking water, or some such dumb thing. And, apparently, deregulation is much more important than the Mickey Mouse detail of your well water having cow dung and/or chemicals in it, making it unsafe to drink. Here's the thing folks: Yes, there is such a thing in some industries as too much regulation, but you can't carry that anti-regulation principle into an argument that we don't need to keep our water safe, regardless of which party you're in. See, if you're a pregnant Republican woman or tiny baby, you are STILL at risk of dangerous health problems when you drink this contaminated water, just like those radical socialist Democratic pregnant women and tiny babies. How can anyone with any common sense not be concerned with these water problems and motivated to fix them? We're talking poisonous chemicals and cow manure in your water here, folks. How on earth can you be okay with that? Do you realize that you're saying that the political aspects of these issues outweigh the health concerns of these issues? My five year old granddaughter knows you shouldn't put dog poop in your Kool Aid, but it appears that many politicians and their supporters are unaware of that principle. How on earth can that be?

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