Brown Winter in Spring Green

By David Giffey “I don’t think there’s any other place in the country better suited than Spring Green to determine how to address agricultural nitrate pollution in private well water,” says groundwater education specialist Kevin Masarik. Keep in mind that scientists, unlike many lobbyists and politicians, aren’t given to overstatement.

Masarik’s modest opinion might offer a glimmer of hope to a growing number of Spring Green Township residents who are learning that the nitrate content of water from their private wells surpasses the legal state and federal maximum allowable level, sometimes by 300 percent or more. Transforming a glimmer into a ray of hope will test the ability of everyone, including the agricultural industry, to confront the nitrate threat and find the cooperative will to respond in ways that benefit generations to come, if not save their lives.

When it comes to problems as threatening to survival as dirty water and polluted air, political power and economic greed often sweep aside stewardship and sound judgment. Madeline Gotkowitz, a hydrogeologist with the Wisconsin Geological Survey, is known and respected in Spring Green, a community about 35 miles west of Madison. She began studying water resources in this Southwestern Wisconsin river valley in 1999. Gotkowitz was a regular presenter at meetings during and after the disastrous flood of 2008, a flood resulting in federal buyouts of destroyed houses, displacements of families, crop losses, and reminders of both the power and the vulnerability of water and, likewise, of human life. The flood also prompted construction of a multi-million dollar drainage ditch along Big Hollow Road as a flood abatement measure. The Big Hollow ditch has been dry during the severe drought of 2012.

Gotkowitz teaches about water as she studies it. Her expertise includes describing how groundwater moves, where it’s located, how old it is, its history. She agrees with Masarik about Spring Green water being ideally suited for study. “Water is quite a lot like air,” says Gotkowitz. “If you think about air pollution and each car being a source…collectively the consequences are enormous.”

Obviously, inconsistencies prevail in the ways in which human beings interact with the environment, and the inconsistencies, which may be abusive, are generally considered “legal.”

Water is no exception. For example, water treatment systems used in cities and villages where municipal wells are polluted with nitrates don’t apply in rural townships where people drink, bathe, and water animals with groundwater from private wells. In rural areas, the standards are considered advisory only. There’s no required rural remedy as is attempted in Portage County’s Village of Plover, where an ion exchange system has been in use for years to reduce nitrate levels in shared water from village wells.

Why does the presence of nitrates in groundwater matter? “Infants who are fed water or formula made with water that is high in nitrates can develop a condition…called ‘blue baby syndrome’…caused by a lack of oxygen in the blood,” warns a Wisconsin DNR brochure. Pregnant women and nursing mothers are warned to avoid or reduce their intake of high-nitrate water. Connections have been made between cancers and nitrates. Municipal water treatment isn’t an option for people like Doug and Sherryl Jones of rural Spring Green. A September 2000 water sample from Jones’ well contained nitrate levels of 13.0 parts per million (ppm). The state and federal standard is 10 ppm.

Not wishing to drink high-nitrate water, the Jones family began buying bottled water and watched nitrate levels climb in their well samples to 20.8 ppm by 2010. A sample in May 2012 tested 19.4 ppm. They’ve recently bought and installed a reverse osmosis system for household use, and have become grassroots water quality activists in the neighborhood.

At Jones’ request, the Town of Spring Green Board called a meeting last November, attracting a standing room crowd of residents of Sauk County’s southernmost township who listened to water scientists, shared stories, and asked for help.

Last year, a water sample from the well at the seat of government, Town Hall on Kennedy Road, showed 20.1-ppm nitrate content. That led to a notice posted in town hall: “Tap water from this facility is unsafe for infants due to high nitrate…Do not prepare baby formula…Pregnant women should avoid this water…use bottled water…Tap water is safe for occasional use by adults and children older than 6 months.” Commercial places including at least one restaurant in the township posted similar notices.

Knowing about nitrate pollution doesn’t necessarily lead to action.

Town board chair Dennis Polivka is an outspoken conservative and also a Sauk County Board member. He’s staked his political platform on an unrelenting defense of corporate farms in the township. Polivka ended the November water meeting with this warning: “Don’t anybody think that if we form a committee, that we’re going to go out and tell farmers what to do because that’s not going to happen.”

On July 26, Polivka said of his private well at home: “I’ve got high nitrates there. I’m at 39 ppm.” (That’s nearly four times the legal standard.) “We’re still drinking the water,” he said. “We were kind of surprised it was that high because we’ve had four litters of pups in the last couple of years, and they were okay.”

Polivka claimed last November that nutrient management (control of crop fertilizers) is being practiced by farmers.

Jim Vanden Brook, nutrient management specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection, said at the November meeting in Spring Green that only about 20 percent of Wisconsin farmers have undertaken nutrient management planning. That number may grow if farmers realize they can save cash by reasonably reducing fertilizer applications. But restoring clean water takes a long time under any circumstances.

Water educator Masarik works at the Center for Watershed Science and Education, UW-Stevens Point (UW-SP). Over the years, and with greater concentration in the past decade, water sample data from across Wisconsin has been collected at the center. The data shows that 42 percent of 330 samples from Town of Spring Green wells in recent years exceeded health standards for nitrate content. More than 600 private wells are estimated to be in use in the township.

As Masarik noted, there are more extreme nitrate pollution statistics from other locations in the state. For example, 64 percent of the private wells tested in the Town of Leeds, Columbia County, exceed the health standard.

The UW-Stevens Point center and the UW Extension offer advice for homeowners to interpret nitrate pollution, beginning with: “Did you know that your well water is actually groundwater? Groundwater is water that occupies void spaces between soil particles or cracks in the rock below the land surface. It originates as precipitation that infiltrated into the ground…Human activities are often responsible for elevated levels of contaminants such as nitrate and chloride.”

Up to 90 percent of nitrate pollution in groundwater is said to come from agricultural sources, and only about 9 percent from septic systems. Since, as Masarik said, “Water is a local resource,” it is possible that a dairy farmer could singlehandedly change practices in order to stop polluting his private well if the nitrate source is identified on a family farm. But that isn’t always the case in places like Spring Green where some large dairy herds and monoculture farming are found upstream.

Residential developments downstream add value to the township tax base while challenging land use practices. Thanks to years of water science research in Spring Green, much is known about the movement of water there. As the town’s website explains, approximately two-thirds of the town’s area lies in the sandy valley along the north bank of the Wisconsin River. “This area contains the majority of agricultural and residential activity in the town.” The northern third of the “driftless area” township is “accented by a dramatic valley wall rising above the Wisconsin River. With the limestone outcropping, contour agriculture and dairy farming, this area typifies rural southwestern Wisconsin.”

Masarik said, “Spring Green is such a simple system” in terms of where the water is located. Water moving from fields and bluffs to the north quickly percolates through the very sandy soil sloping slightly toward the Wisconsin River. In other words, if land use practices - including nutrient management and the development of prairie or wooded buffer zones - were changed, the results could be seen relatively soon, rather than distant decades from now.

“If you’re going to study management strategies,” said Masarik, “you’re going to see results in a fairly short time in Spring Green.” While the area’s geology and soil types can’t be controlled, other elements like types of crops are human choices.

“Groundwater moves about one foot a day,” said Masarik. Therefore, changing its content is a slow process. Conversely, nitrate pollution gained speed in the past half-century, and more notably, the past decade.

“Places all over the country are dealing with nitrates,” said Masarik. “Groundwater is a widely misunderstood resource.” That means data is lacking. “When we talk about solutions, we’re always having to justify that these things work.” That’s a reason it makes sense to concentrate research on a place like Spring Green where, relatively speaking, the pace of groundwater activity is quickened.

Taking land out of production isn’t necessarily needed, said Masarik. Using land differently is another story. Farmers and consumers are equally responsible for clean or dirty water. The adjectives are mine, not Masarik’s. “If we want to grow less corn, we would have to change diets,” he commented.

In a 1998 working paper for the Land Tenure Center, UW-Madison, M. Patricia Marchak wrote: “If you own land, you usually have riparian rights to stream water and seniority rights to groundwater. Put simply, this system allows the owner at the top of the hill to use up or pollute water needed by those at the bottom of the hill.”

And the writer’s conclusion: “Rights are what a society is willing to grant and enforce. If companies, individuals, groups, or the state are not managing and stewarding resources in sustainable ways, we should challenge their authority.”

Writer Bill McKibben would probably agree. The author of The End of Nature, in his most recent book eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, wrote: “We’ll need to figure out what parts of our lives and our ideologies we must abandon so that we can protect the core of our societies and civilizations.”

That may not be a powerful ray of hope, but it’s a glimmer.

McKibben is among the notable speakers scheduled for Fighting Bob Fest at the Alliant Center, Madison, on September 15. Plan to hear him there.