There They Go Again

Sep 18, 2014 | Agriculture, Groundwater

The dairy industry defends the indefensible

We’ve almost gotten inured to the dairy industry’s rationalizations, denials, obfuscations, deflections and excuses for not changing its polluting ways. For decades, dairy farmers blamed sea gulls for algae pollution in Lake Michigan. They used to blame algae blooms in the Madison lakes on dogs and geese, until they finally succumbed to the decades of research conducted by world-class UW-Madison scientists and hundreds of graduate students which have proven that the Madison lakes’ algae blooms are caused largely by farm runoff.

When they don’t have a handy scapegoat for the problems they cause and need to buy time, farmers and their groups invariably call for “more research,” even if extant research is unambiguous in defining a problem.

Manure In Sink

And there they go again, this time in Kewaunee County. That county is saturated in cow manure, and the already-huge farms keep expanding. The groundwater there is very vulnerable to contamination as the county sits on “karst” geology — shallow topsoil underlain by porous and cracked rock. Manure-laced water can run through these cracks and straight to the aquifer. About a third of 550+ wells tested recently in the county had some form of contamination.

The county is bravely attempting to regulate this problem by limiting how much manure can be applied in vulnerable places at certain times of the year. It’s a common-sense and long-overdue partial solution to a looming public health crisis. Enter the Dairy Business Association (DBA), a trade group. It has innuendo and fear-mongering down to a science (maybe the only science they understand), and, true to form they’re pushing back at the proposed Kewaunee ordinance.

It calls provisions of the ordinance “vague” and likely to “confuse” farmers. The ordinance is actually quite specific in its prescriptions for manure spreading on vulnerable lands. DBA insults its own brethren by saying they will be confused by the ordinance. These are sophisticated people running complex businesses.

DBA contends the ordinance was provoked by “a couple of studies.” To the contrary, the problem the ordinance is trying to solve has been well understood for years, by several studies and analyses, including the testing of thousands of wells.

Given that 10% of wells “throughout Wisconsin” have nitrates, observes DBA, what’s the big deal? Imagine if we knew that 10% of car accidents in the state had one cause. You think we’d want it shrugged off like DBA wants well contamination shrugged off? And by citing only the nitrate number, they conveniently ignore coliform bacteria, even salmonella, in well water there. And even if the water you see in this sink were pure, would you want to brush your teeth with it?

There’s more but it’s almost too frustrating to read. But we’re not too frustrated with talking about it — certainly nowhere near the frustration of hundreds of Kewaunee County residents having to live with what one observer called “Third World conditions” for drinking water.

We will have more to say in the coming weeks about this issue. Meanwhile, reading the excellent Restore Kewaunee website will give you a taste (we use that word advisedly) of what’s going on Kewaunee County, and the brave fight underway.