The letter from the La Crosse County Health Department came as a shock to Bryana Alameida. She and her husband, Josh, moved last fall into the new home they built in the August Prairie subdivision in the town of Holland with their two young children. Here they were, only half a year in their new home, and the county was warning their water might not be safe to drink.
“We used to live in the city of Holmen and water was never really a concern to us,” said Alameida, who runs her own photography business. “I’m just wondering why we didn’t know anything about this before.”
The Alameida family was one of 2,000 recipients of county health department letters in early April urging people to have their wells tested for nitrate and coliform bacteria. Rural residents have gotten many gentle reminders from county officials over the years encouraging annual testing of their well water for nitrate, but this was different, alarming, the letter headlined in big, bold capital letters: “WATER QUALITY HEALTH ADVISORY FOR PRIVATE WELLS.”
The county’s warning was triggered in part by the revelation in last summer’s Legislative Audit Bureau report on the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources that a concentrated animal feeding operation, also called a CAFO, in the town of Holland had elevated levels of nitrate in monitoring well tests since 2005. The Babcock Genetics CAFO has a permit that allows it to raise more than 4,000 pigs, and last summer’s LAB report on DNR enforcement of Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits indicated that Babcock had levels of nitrate that violated the terms of its permit.
Like Alameida, La Crosse County officials wondered why they didn’t know anything about that before.
It took a formal public records request sent to the DNR from the county — and about 2½ months — to get monitoring well test results for the Babcock CAFO from January 2010 through November 2016. The data the county received in mid-February showed all but one of the six wells tested had levels above the allowed concentration for nitrate in the most recent tests.
And earlier Babcock well tests showed nitrate levels as high as five times the allowed level, which is 10 parts per million. Out of 102 well samples tested during that period, only 12 fell below 10 ppm and 41 were above 20 ppm.
When the county later received three other batches of DNR records requested, officials found that Babcock had received neither a notice of violation nor a milder notice of noncompliance from the DNR related to the high nitrate levels.
Between the audit bureau report on the DNR, the DNR’s disappointing response to the county’s earlier requests for information that led to the formal requests, and the alarming contents of the records they eventually received, county officials are concerned about the lack of enforcement and communication from the DNR — concerned enough to be looking at what the county needs do to protect the health of residents when the DNR seems unable or unwilling to do its part.
“It’s not OK. We need to be doing something,” said La Crosse County Board Chair Tara Johnson. “It would be nice to feel like our partners at the state were taking responsibility and taking the action that they should. … We want to be confident that the rules that are in place are being enforced.”
When Jim Steinhoff, the now-retired county health lab manager, saw the Legislative Audit Bureau’s report on the DNR last summer, a sentence on page 44 referring to a La Crosse County CAFO jumped out at him. The sentence indicated that the 12 CAFOs in the state required to install monitoring wells included “a La Crosse County permittee with exceedances for nitrogen beginning in 2005 that DNR indicated it is in the process of evaluating.”
Since there is only one CAFO in La Crosse, it had to be Babcock.
Steinhoff asked the DNR for more information about the compliance status of the Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit holders in La Crosse County. When the DNR finally replied, after months, the answers were so vague that Steinhoff helped craft four public records requests for the DNR, one of the last major projects he undertook before retiring at the beginning of the year.
While the county waited for the DNR records, the county’s health department began looking at test results for private rural wells conducted in its own lab. Jen Rombalski, the health department’s director, said when the county well test results were mapped, they showed clusters of high nitrate levels in several areas on the western side of the towns of Onalaska and Holland.
DNR spokesman Jim Dick noted in response to questions from the Tribune that the monitoring wells were installed at Babcock to investigate a leaking manure storage lagoon “several years ago” and that Babcock had installed a synthetic liner on the lagoon to prevent further leakage. He did not specify when the monitoring wells were put in place.
Dick also said the CAFO was given a notice for noncompliance because the nitrate levels in the monitoring wells have shown a general decline, an indication that things are improving.
The Babcock Genetics operation’s permit, which is currently expired, has been in place since at least the early 1990s. Permits are up for renewal every five years, and state rules keep the terms of a WPDES permit in place until it is renewed.
Phone messages seeking comment from the operation’s manager were not returned.
Even if there had been a violation at Babcock, Dick said, nearby residents or their municipalities would not have gotten a notice. “The DNR doesn’t have a policy regarding notifying municipalities or private well owners in the vicinity when a CAFO violates a permit,” he said.
Nitrate can get in groundwater from animal manure and human waste spread on farm fields, from faulty septic systems, and from overuse of fertilizers containing nitrogen on farm fields and lawns. The sandy soil in the western part of the towns of Holland and Onalaska makes for quicker transit of contaminants of all sorts to the groundwater aquifer.
Health risks from nitrate consumption are most acute for infants younger than 6 months and for women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant. Some studies also indicate a link between long-term consumption of high levels of nitrate and other health problems, including diabetes, some types of cancers and thyroid disease.
There also was a concern at the county health department about well tests in those areas that were positive for coliform bacteria, which can be an indicator that dangerous E. coli bacteria could be present. Exposure to E. coli can cause vomiting, diarrhea and fever and can be a major health threat, especially for people who have other medical issues.
Between the county lab test results and the information from the DNR on Babcock, Rombalski decided to send the health advisory letters, spread the word about well-water concerns in the media and put on two informational meetings, one in the town of Holland, one in the town of Onalaska.
“We need water to live, and we rely on that water to be of good quality and healthy, and we take it for granted,” Rombalski said. “What I was looking for (in issuing the health advisory) simply was awareness and testing in response.”
Rombalski got her wish in terms of getting people to test their well water, which she said should be done annually in any case.
In the first three weeks after the county’s health advisory, the health department lab processed almost 1,000 water samples, testing 451 for nitrate and 448 for coliform bacteria. In the first three months of the year, by contrast, the county lab tested 94 water samples, and last April the lab tested 192 samples for the entire month.
“We’ve been in emergency mode in the department here going on three weeks now,” Rombalski said. “I’m really thankful to see people are taking it seriously.”
It’s likely that even more well water tests were conducted after the county’s health advisory, as the county’s letter listed four other potential ways for people to get their water tested other than bringing it to the county.
Of the samples tested by the county in the first three weeks after the health advisory, 130 (almost 29 percent) had nitrate levels higher than 10 ppm, with some higher than 20 ppm, while 34 samples (7.6 percent) tested positive for coliform bacteria.
Alameida’s test for nitrate came back at 10.2 ppm, and even before she got the results the family — which also includes 6-year-old Ethan and 2-year-old Evynn — was consuming bottled water instead of drinking from the tap. And even before the test came back, she had plans to install a reverse osmosis filtration system that can remove nitrate from the family’s well water, which she said will cost up to $950 to treat just the water they drink.
“I am just thankful that letter was sent because we would have never considered an RO system otherwise,” Alameida said. “I’m probably going to test our water at least two or three times a year. I would rather be safe than sorry.”
Alameida and her husband were among the roughly 75 people at the Holland information meeting held after the county sent its health advisory. She said she had a lot of questions going into the meeting, conducted by three people from the county health department and two DNR representatives, but her questions — such as where the nitrate is coming from — weren’t necessarily answered to her satisfaction.
“It seems like they were really deflected,” she said.
County officials, too, still have a lot of questions to answer.
Like Alameida, county officials are keen to nail down the reasons for the high nitrate levels in private wells. To be clear, nobody at the county is pointing the finger at Babcock as the source of all the nitrate contamination.
Babcock is “upstream” in terms of aquifer flow from a pocket of private well contamination on Brice Prairie on the north shore of Lake Onalaska, but nitrates would not have migrated from the CAFO to the other two contamination clusters. And even the Brice Prairie cluster south of Babcock could have other contributors to the nitrate levels, including other farm operations, residential fertilizer use or faulty home septic systems.
It’s less likely that high nitrate levels in the groundwater come from farmers putting on too much manufactured fertilizer because it’s against their economic interest to use too much. However, improper spreading on farm fields of manure and material pumped from residential septic systems could be a problem.
“The science is very clear. There’s no doubt that if we put fertilizer on our ground it’s going to eventually migrate to our groundwater,” said county board member Mike Giese, a member of the board’s Health and Human Services Committee. He and board member Monica Kruse, who chairs the HHS committee, have been at the forefront of getting the county’s concerns about DNR oversight and enforcement addressed.
Rombalski said the health department will be digging more deeply into the groundwater issue, looking at data to try to narrow down the causes of these contamination clusters. “We don’t want to have to issue another 2,000 letters three years from now,” Johnson said. “We should all be working on trying to figure out the cause.”
County officials are still analyzing the “data dump” it received as a result of the DNR records request, and there could be other areas of concern that arise out of that data.
The county health department also will work on developing mitigation strategies to reduce groundwater contamination that could involve policy changes, such as a wellhead protection ordinance that might prevent permitting of future CAFOs in the county. “That’s forward looking because any existing land use is grandfathered in,” Giese said.
And Rombalski said she wants the department to dig deeper into research on the health effects of nitrate consumption and share those findings with not only county residents but people in surrounding that don’t have health departments on the magnitude of La Crosse County’s.
Giese, Kruse and Johnson all assert that situations like La Crosse County’s make the case for a stronger water quality enforcement effort by the DNR, one with a lot more transparency and better communication.
“It is disconcerting that we have had to go to the extreme to get information,” Johnson said. “We want to bring awareness to the issue if there is a problem and do it in a way it can make an impact on decisions being made at the state level.”
For county residents like Alameida, dealing with nitrate contamination is a matter of installing filtration or digging deeper wells, relying on bottled water indefinitely or even someday having to pay to hook up to a municipal water system.
But from Giese and Kruse’s perspective, the issue goes beyond health and into politics, with the solution in redefining state priorities from protecting agricultural and industrial interests to protecting natural resources.
“I think political decisions are adversely affecting people’s health. The focus is on making it easier for businesses to flourish,” Kruse said. “I definitely see us not letting this lose steam. I plan to pursue it for sure.”