Abundant milk, or clean water: Is that the question?
In a little rural town hall northwest of Brodhead, neighbors are struggling with a problem soon to affect every person in Wisconsin.
It has to do with clean water, something no human can live without for more than a few days. Like so many things today, this issue involves a lot of other issues affecting our lives in complex, vital ways.
Yet water – pure, clear, clean water – is the most important. If every one of us does not give water our attention now, irreparable damage will be done. Consider what’s happening in the Town of Magnolia and our counties.
I can’t drink my water. My children and wife cannot drink our water. My daughter and her husband, married 2½ years and living next door, cannot drink their water. My neighbors – the Wilkes, the Johnsons, the Thompsons, the Yoders and many others, cannot safely drink their water.
Chances are probably at least 1 in 3 that you, whether you know it or not, have this contaminate at unsafe levels in your water, too. And because of a new state law you probably don’t know about either, I believe it is inevitable that everyone’s water will become unsafe.
A mineral essential for fertilizing crops is polluting our groundwater and wells. Its levels are rising all around us, well beyond what the Environmental Protection Agency indicates is unsafe, unfit to drink.
Nitrate contamination of well water has been creeping up on Wisconsin for a long time. Studies 10 years ago indicated 1 in 10 wells statewide were unfit to drink because of nitrate contamination. Rock County Public Health Department has monitored 150 wells for that long. It determined between 1 in 4 and 1 in 3 wells is contaminated with nitrate.
Rock County health technicians say nitrate pollution may have leveled off. Yet Janesville in recent years had to replace one of its three municipal wells because of nitrate contamination. In some watersheds in southern Wisconsin, half the wells are now polluted with nitrate.
In the human bloodstream, nitrate can do to our brains and vital organs what it does to aquatic and marine life in water. It starves the body of oxygen and damages or impairs health.
In addition, high nitrate levels in water and feed lead to reduced vitality and increased stillbirth, low birth weight, and slow weight gain in livestock. Nitrate concentration is monitored in municipal water supplies worldwide, and in foodstuffs, to prevent exposure of populations to harmful or toxic levels.
If we know nitrate poses such dangers, why do we tolerate its heavy application to fields in both chemical fertilizer and liquid manure slurry? And how does this issue play out in that new round of hearings Dec. 14 in Magnolia Township?
Guidelines for a new state law that more than 80 industrial dairy operations – in a state of more than 16,000 dairy farms – helped rush into adoption 6 weeks after the bill was introduced in February 2004, are just now going into effect.
Some of my neighbors, my wife and I drove to the one public hearing state lawmakers allowed during this law’s consideration. Private citizen after private citizen from around the state asked these assembly representatives and state senators to give the issue more careful consideration. I heard them plead for more time to gather independent testimony regarding impacts these gigantic facilities will have on our water and public health.
In a full day of dairy industry representatives and large-scale farmers thanking lawmakers for inviting their testimony in favor of dairy business interests, I heard no testimony from any medical researchers, doctors or public health specialists.
This was despite a call from one of the oldest and largest health organization in the United States – the American Public Health Association – for a moratorium on construction of large-scale confined animal feeding operations, just weeks before Wisconsin rushed into passage a law barring local communities from refusing to permit these facilities.
The new state guidelines severely restrict what towns and counties can do to condition or refuse permits for constructing and operating large confined animal feeding operations. A hundred dairy cows generate a volume of manure 10 times greater than waste from a city the size of Brodhead.
Yet the new state law and Wisconsin’s department of agriculture rules to administer it, narrowly limit what a rural population of only 800 people can say about facilities for 1,000, 10,000, 20,000 cows. Does it sound far-fetched to think Wisconsin will become like California, where mile, after mile of these gigantic milking facilities sprawl across the world’s 5th biggest economy?
Wisconsin’s new livestock facility siting law opens the floodgates to these facilities. Representatives of state and local government have begun dictating to Town of Magnolia officials what they can and cannot do under the new state provisions, which now supercede local ordinances.
At issue is a permit to operate a livestock facility where liquid manure has already been knifed into the ground 1 million gallons at a time across 400 acres on the property over the past 1½ years. In the path of field drainage tiles from the facility, tributaries and Norwegian Creek, which traverse the property, neighboring wells are showing rising nitrate pollution.
The applicant for a permit to legally operate a confined animal feeding operation on this property, insists there’s no proof nitrate pollution is coming from this operation. Incredibly, over and over in a recent hearing, supporters of this permit pointed to widespread nitrate contamination as reason to permit this facility.
Nitrate contamination is happening everywhere, they acknowledged, so this facility cannot be singled out for restriction or rejection. Chemical nitrate fertilizer applications will go on in field applications across the property, with or without liquid manure, they said, so town officials should just allow the huge heifer operation a permit.
For my neighbors and my family, who’ve been steadfastly defending our rights to clean water for 4 years in this situation, these arguments paint a tragic choice for everyone living in the Dairy State.
We accept pen and paper calculations, and blanket imposition of computer models based on theoretical standards and science-based business. We do this to ensure abundant production of huge volumes of cheap milk for cheese-making in Wisconsin. We do this to ensure concentrated, large-scale operations will continue to depress milk prices by high volumes of milk and drive small- and mid-size milk producers out of business. Or, we press for clean water based on health, sustainable agricultural and medical science in our homes, on our land and in streams where we live.
In Wisconsin’s rivalry with California to cling to the top cheese-making ranking, another industrial-scale challenge seems certain to come with the designation. Nitrate leaching in the vegetable and dairy-rich Salinas Valley, Calif., watershed has been recognized as a serious problem for 50 years. Studies of nitrate contamination of the watershed were under way there as early as 1953.
About 35 percent of wells tested in northern Monterey County, including the Salinas Valley, had nitrate concentrations greater than 45 ppm back then. More recent analysis using nitrate-quick-tests have shown some wells in Salinas measuring as high as 150 ppm
Much closer to home, preliminary nitrate tests of surface waters at the livestock facility seeking a permit under Wisconsin’s new state law on County Highway B, show at least one reading exceeded 200 ppm.
Is this the price Wisconsin has to pay to cling to its top Dairy State designation? Those who press for strong clean water protections in the shadow of Wisconsin’s first contested livestock facility siting permit may hold the key. Are you among them? We’ll all be drinking our answer.
How nitrogen gives rise to life in Nature
– and harms life in man-made activities
All living systems need nitrogen to exist. It helps build many essentials, like proteins, DNA, RNA and vitamins, as well as hormones and enzymes.
Higher organisms, such as animals and human beings, cannot use simple forms of nitrogen such as nitrate and ammonium in these life processes. They must rely on complex forms of nitrogen, such as amino acids and nucleic acids.
Plants provide the bulk of nitrogen for all living systems. In order for plants to make complex nitrogen compounds, the plants need a supply of simple nitrogen compounds, and most plants prefer nitrate.
Over the eons that agriculture developed, man has applied fertilizer to crops to enhance their growth and productivity. In the United States, nitrogen fertilizers have been applied in very large amounts to field crops since the 1950s.
This is not a bad outcome in and of itself. Yet as our crop yields have doubled, tripled, quadrupled from rising nitrogen applications, prices farmers receive for most commodities have periodically become so depressed that millions of families have had to leave food production for other occupations.
Social and economic costs to rural communities have proven a price America was willing to pay for an “efficient” agricultural engine powered by nitrogen fertilizers and cheap fossil fuels to produce and spread them upon the landscape.
Yet a new bill is now falling due for cheap food and “efficient” agriculture. Its impacts upon our water and health are unquestionable.
Nitrate is a human health threat, especially to infants, causing the condition known as methemoglobinemia, also called “blue baby syndrome”. Ingested, nitrate is converted in the stomach to nitrite, which then combines with hemoglobin to form methemoglobin. In this form, it decreases the blood’s ability to carry oxygen.
Infants are more susceptible to nitrate toxicity than older children or adults. Fatalities are rare, but sub-acute methemoglobinemia can be asymptotic as it affects development. Spontaneous abortions have been reported near large confined animal feeding operations, where well water was found to be high in nitrates.
Chronic consumption of high levels of nitrate may also cause other health problems. Some forms of cancer and teratogenic effects are linked to high nitrate levels. Data are inconclusive, but cause for concern.
An EPA publication “Is Your Drinking Water Safe?” states that “Only two substances for which standards have been set pose an immediate threat to health whenever they are exceeded: bacteria and nitrate.”
Accumulation of nitrate in the environment results mainly from non-point source runoff from the over-application of nitrogenous fertilizers and from poorly or untreated sewage. In addition, nitrate-containing wastes are produced by many industrial processes including paper and munitions manufacturing.
Because agriculture is implicated in the nitrate pollution problem, farmers and rural communities are the most threatened populations. In the United States, the problem is concentrated in the Mid-West and the Far-West, with large areas of Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Wisconsin, Washington and California being heavily affected.
The US Geological Survey released a report in 1995, which revealed that nitrate concentration in the nation’s groundwater supply is increasing steadily: 9 percent of wells tested have nitrate concentrations exceeding the EPA maximum contaminant level (MCL) for nitrate of 10 ppm, up from 2.4 percent in prior studies.
– Tony Ends, Brodhead, Wis.