Wisconsin’s drinking water isn’t exactly full of it, but manure continues to pose a potent threat to potability.
A Sauk County expert says government programs and farmer awareness have helped protect waterways from contaminated runoff. Still, spills remain a concern: Manure contains contaminants that can infect public waterways and drinking water, causing potentially life-threatening illnesses.
“Most of our drinking water is probably some of the best out there,” said Brent Bergstrom of the Sauk County Planning, Zoning and Conservation Department, citing landowner efforts to keep contaminants out of streams. “In most cases, the streams are cleaner and colder (than they once were). Still, do we have places to go? Absolutely.”
Analysis by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found Wisconsin farms this year generated the largest volume of manure spills since 2007. Livestock operations have spilled more than 1 million gallons of manure in 2013, according to the state Department of Natural Resources’ records.
In an August report to the Legislature, the Wisconsin Groundwater Coordinating Council said 23 percent of private well water samples tested positive for coliform bacteria. About 3 percent of private well water samples tested positive for E. coli, an indicator of a waterborne disease that afflicts the human intestinal tract.
Manure from farmlands often is a prime suspect of surface-water contamination. If not managed properly, manure can be carried by rain or melting snow into streams and creeks.
Bergstrom said farmers’ awareness of contamination issues is rising, and government funding often helps mitigate potential dangers.
Landowners increasingly report manure spills and remedy them quickly. “They can alleviate a lot of pain and suffering and fines by doing so,” Bergstrom said. “I think there is a lot of effort out there.”
Government programs often cover 70 percent of the cost of projects such as building gutters that divert clean storm water away from pasturelands, and planting native grasses along stream banks to filter waste as it rolls downhill. Locally, a program paid to rehabilitate stream beds along Otter Creek from the Baraboo Bluffs to Honey Creek.
“All those help keep more manure out of the stream,” Bergstrom said.
Surface water isn’t the only front in this war on wayward waste. Abatement programs fund removal of old wells in farm fields, removing potential threats to groundwater.
“It helps the landowners out, and it helps the environment at the same time,” Bergstrom said.
Despite these efforts to reduce manure flow, stuff happens. Bergstrom said a few weeks ago a broken slurry valve created a spill in Sauk County. The landowner built a berm to keep waste from flowing into a nearby stream.
Last month, about 300,000 gallons of manure escaped from a ruptured pipe at a Dane County facility that uses farm waste to generate electricity. The break sent liquid manure directly into Six Mile Creek.
In February, a spill at the Arlington Agricultural Research Station in Columbia County released 300,000 gallons of manure when a pipe broke. DNR records show Arlington has reported five spills since 2007. That includes three spills in 2009 for a combined 50,000 gallons.
Generally, environmental activists say, the main offenders are large farms with 700 cows or more. According to the Journal Sentinel analysis, about one-third of spills since 2007 came from mega farms. There are currently 196 such dairy farms in the state, but only three in Sauk County.
The Groundwater Coordinating Council report shows runoff risk can be reduced if manure spreading isn’t done during rainstorms or the spring thaw. It also recommends spreading be done according to an approved nutrient management plan, but less than 21 percent of state farmland is covered by such plans.