This Wisconsin Town Is Desperately Fighting For Its Drinking Water

This Wisconsin Town Is Desperately Fighting For Its Drinking Water

Austyn Gaffney


On a hot midsummer morning in 2012, Rhonda Carrell received a mailer from the Wysocki Family of Companies announcing its intention to build a mega-dairy and farm – Golden Sands – just a stone’s throw from her driveway in Saratoga, Wisconsin.

Carrell’s small town was a convenient location for the big agriculture firm. Twenty miles east of its headquarters, Saratoga is a midpoint between the company’s farm fields, another of its mega-dairies, and its offices.

The day before Carrell got the mailer, a Wysocki delegate had come through Saratoga to drop off permit applications for Golden Sands Dairy. Its proposal included 5,300 cows and more than 6,000 acres of farmland scattered throughout the community. If the plan moved forward, the rural town of 5,000 residents would have more cows than people.

It was a prospect that frightened the Carrells. Wisconsin, known as the dairy capital of the U.S., is no stranger to mega-dairies. The proposed Golden Sands would join around 300 already operating in the state. Known as CAFOs, or concentrated animal feeding operations, these giant factory farms hold upwards of 1,000 animals that are kept mostly in confined conditions.

Their sheer scale makes them cost-efficient, but efficiency comes at a heavy price. Not only can they knock smaller farms out of business by outpacing them on price, but the waste they churn out can carry a heavy environmental toll – especially when it comes to water. And Rhonda Carrell was aware of what was at stake.

The big problem with CAFOs, such as Wysocki’s, is what comes out of the cows: manure.

Carrell looks out over a portion of the proposed site of Golden Sands Dairy in Saratoga, Wisconsin, on Sept. 20.

A dairy cow can produce up to 80 pounds of manure per day. A site like Golden Sands could have more than 150 million pounds of manure on its hands each year. To dispose of this waste, CAFOs often buy up thousands of acres nearby for vegetable production. These fields are known as manure application fields. While manure is a commonly used crop fertilizer – and, if managed properly, can return nutrients to the soil – the amounts produced by CAFOs are often vastly more than what can be absorbed in the soil, meaning animal waste can end up leaching into water supplies, contaminating them.

In Wisconsin, this is a dire problem. The state is plagued with contaminants from animal waste — particularly nitrate, which has been linked to birth defects and cancer. Nitrates can concentrate in groundwater from a variety of sources, including bad septic systems, but here, 90% of them come from agriculture. About 40% of Wisconsinites rely on private well water, and at least 10% of all private wells in Wisconsin contain unsafe levels of nitrates.

The day the mailer fell onto the Carrells’ doormat was the start of an epic battle – one that is still ongoing and has pitched the tiny community of Saratoga, terrified of losing its pristine drinking water, against a big agricultural company determined to build another mega-diary.

Saratoga citizens’ fight against Golden Sands represents a battle for clean water across the region.

“I’ve given up a lot of my life because of this fight,” Carrell told HuffPost over the phone in late January. She admitted she was exhausted. The fight was almost at its seven-year mark, and she still couldn’t see the finish line.

Carrell moved to Saratoga more than 12 years ago to open a hair salon. She set up shop just beyond her back porch. She and her husband planned on a quiet life with walks among the red pine plantations, weekends fishing in pristine trout streams and eventual retirement. She didn’t expect to sacrifice so much of her income, time and mental health on a battle to preserve clean drinking water in the town.

The Carrells are among a growing number of residents in a tricounty agricultural corridor — comprised of Juneau County, Adams County and Wood County, where Saratoga is located — who are concerned about high levels of nitrates in their drinking water.

One of the most well-known health effects from nitrates is blue baby syndrome, a decrease in the blood’s oxygen levels which can lead to infant death, but new studies have also found links to birth defects, thyroid disease and cancer.

It’s a particular problem in the middle of the state where Golden Sands has been proposed. The region, called Central Sands, was formed by a glacial lake, leaving behind the Wisconsin River as a souvenir. A quarter of this flat, broad landscape is now devoted to agriculture.

The soil is made of about 100 feet of pure sand and gravel, making it highly permeable, according to George Kraft, a hydrogeologist and professor of water resources at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. The soil doesn’t hold water or pollutants well, and nitrates can easily slip into the groundwater. And because the water table is shallow, the wells most residents rely on for their water are shallow, too.

Many big farms try to circumvent pollution problems with state-approved nutrient management plans that set out strategies for what farms will do with the manure produced by their animals. But Kraft believes these plans often simply provide a legal loophole for farmers to maximize their use of fertilizer and waste disposal systems. The plans do not include regulations around ground or surface water contamination.

“They’re not water protection tools,” Kraft said.

Once they learned of Wysocki’s plans, Carrell and other concerned Saratoga residents quickly formed a citizens group — Protect Wood County — to conduct water testing and monitor their nitrate levels. Since 2012, Saratoga has created one of the most comprehensive baseline water testing databases in the state. The town’s water is essentially pristine, with a nitrate level of around 0.2 milligrams per liter.

Criste Sullivan-Greening, a member of Protect Wood County, grew up behind Saratoga’s town hall and raised her three kids along one of the town’s clear streams.

“We didn’t want the CAFO,” Sullivan-Greening said. “We knew we had to organize, and that’s what the citizens did. Within 30 days, we had multiple committees formed to study potential impacts to roads, air quality, and quality of life. We had hundreds of community members teaming together to do research on what it could do to our township.”

Along with water testing and community organizing, the town also contested Wysocki’s permit in 2012 on the basis that agricultural zoning laws prevented the company from using the 6,000 acres as farmland.

This kicked off a series of lawsuits between the town and the mega-dairy that eventually reached Wisconsin’s Supreme Court. In 2018, after six years of legal battles, the court delivered a blow to Saratoga’s hope of seeing off Golden Sands, ruling that the dairy could farm on the land, as long as it built the dairy first.

HuffPost contacted Wysocki Family of Companies multiple times via email and phone. A spokesperson for the company emailed, saying they would endeavor to provide information, but did not respond to any questions.

Sullivan-Greening remains hopeful that given some of the challenges Wysocki faces, including historically low milk prices, the company won’t move forward with the controversial CAFO. She even sees a silver living to the struggle.

“Back in 2012, our community was a community of strangers,” she said. “Now, years later, we’re a family. What Wyscoki’s done to our community has made us stronger.”

For a sense of the potential impact of the proposed Golden Sands Dairy, one need only look across the Wisconsin River to Juneau County, where Wysocki opened its Central Sands mega-dairy in 2007.

Pam Murray and her husband, Scott, spent 20 years raising their kids in the town of Armenia in Juneau County. After Wysocki opened the Central Sands CAFO in 2007, their house, about 300 feet away from manure application fields, was in the line of fire. According to Murray, manure overspray covered their home, pool and cars, and began to permeate their inner walls, their carpet and even their clothes.

In 2011, the couple agreed to be bought out by Wyoscki. Scott died five years later at just 55. Their neighbor, Diane Miller, also agreed to be bought out after her husband, Ray, passed away from cancer. Miller said the overspray became so bad that her husband, who used a wheelchair, was unable to go outside unassisted because the ramp was too slick. Miller died in 2014. Of the two couples bought out by Wysocki, only Pam Murray is still alive.

Then, in 2016, the death of a baby girl further galvanized neighbors against the CAFO.

Celina Stewart, who lives 2 miles east of the Central Sands Dairy and downstream from its farm fields, believes nitrates in her water led to the death of her baby at 23 weeks due to serious birth defects. When the Department of Agriculture tested her water after she lost her daughter, results showed nitrate levels of 35 milligrams per liter, Stewart said. However, a privately commissioned test showed nitrate levels of 42.5 milligrams per liter. The federal safe drinking water level is 10 milligrams per liter.

Two years later, Nancy Eggleston, environmental health supervisor for the Wood County Health Department, organized a community-wide water test of residential wells near Armenia. She was shocked when 41% of the 104 private wells tested had nitrates above the safe drinking water level – 4.5 times the statewide average for nitrate contamination. The Wood and Juneau County Health Departments issued a warning to residents not to drink their well water if it had high nitrate levels.

The Environmental Protection Agency was also testing water near Central Sands, and its adjacent farm fields found that 65% of their groundwater samples down-gradient from Central Sands showed nitrate contamination.

Ken Wade, a former hydrogeologist for the Department of Natural Resources, wasn’t surprised. In 2013, one well being monitored at Central Sands Dairy showed that groundwater nitrates had spiked to nearly four times the safe drinking water standard. The next year, another well was measured to have nitrate levels that were 7.7 times the standard. It was “the highest nitrate groundwater contamination I’ve seen anywhere in the state,” Wade said.

Following the testing by Eggleston and the EPA, Wysocki formed a coalition with two nearby industrial agriculture corporations. In a public letter from August 2018, the alliance — called the Armenia Growers Coalition — attributed the elevated nitrate levels in part to “legacy agricultural practices,” or farms that existed in the region decades before their own cattle and crop enterprises arrived.

But George Kraft, who has studied the area since the 1990s, doesn’t buy it.

“The connection that this group is making, that it’s a legacy problem dating back to the 1950s, doesn’t make sense,” Kraft said. Data shows that nitrate levels in the groundwater have become more severe over time, he added.

The Armenia Growers Coalition volunteered in August 2018 to provide bottled water to residents whose water had nitrate levels above 10 milligrams per liter, at least until a water treatment system was installed at the residents’ homes. According to Cameron Field, the coalition’s attorney, 36 reverse osmosis systems (which filter out nitrates) have been installed in residents’ homes, though 62 were requested.

But these efforts were not enough to stave off legal action against Wysocki. In November 2018, a lawsuit brought by 81 families who live near Central Sands Dairy claimed that Wysocki’s harmful practices caused medical problems — including cancer, thyroid disease, miscarriages and birth defects — and that Wysocki initially lied to residents about the potential environmental impact. The court case is ongoing, and according to Breanne Snapp, an attorney for the plaintiffs, the suit has now more than doubled to 174 plaintiffs. The bottled water and treatment systems provided by the Growers Coalition are “not a comprehensive solution to the problem,” Snapp said.

Wysocki did not respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment on the lawsuit. However, Tim Huffcutt, a spokesperson for Wysocki Family of Companies, sent a statement to the USA Today Network-Wisconsin in January, saying, “there are various sources of nitrates in the environment” and repeating suggestions that these could be linked to legacy farming practices. Huffcutt’s statement also said the Armenia Growers Coalition believes providing bottled water and treatment systems “is the best way forward.”

Agricultural runoff, such as manure and other fertilizers, is largely exempt from federal regulation under 1972’s Clean Water Act, which leaves agricultural supervision largely up to the states. Although large CAFOs have to get permits for their nutrient management planning, there’s little oversight in Wisconsin for how CAFOs dispose of waste.

“We haven’t been able to crack the agricultural pollution nut,” Kraft said. “Somehow, we have to get that done.”

There’s some hope under Wisconsin’s new Democratic governor, Tony Evers. Evers announced in January that 2019 was the year of clean drinking water. Of the $125 million water quality budget he proposed, the state’s Republican-controlled legislature approved $48 million in new funding for pollution prevention. Evers also announced plans to limit the amount of nitrates in the groundwater by creating new statewide limits on agricultural runoff.

But those plans will take at least 2½ years. As it stands, the only solution for residents fearing nitrate pollution throughout the state is Eggleston’s: Test your water and know your nitrate number. Test annually and at different times of the year, as farming seasons can influence the level of pollutants, she said. And if it’s above the federal drinking water limit, don’t drink the water. If you’re pregnant, don’t drink any well water at all.

“I can’t imagine looking at your faucet and thinking, ‘I can’t drink that,’” Eggleston said.

However hard Saratoga works, everything still hinges on Wysocki. Daniel Helsel, a policy initiatives manager at the Department of Natural Resources, said the permitting process for Wysocki has been on hold since 2016 as it waits for Wysocki to provide information needed to review their application. But the application could stay open indefinitely.

“The permit applications themselves do not expire,” Helsel said. “The permit can only be withdrawn at the request of the applicant.”

Attorney Paul Kent, who has been involved in Saratoga’s fight for more than half a decade, said if Wysocki decides to proceed with the dairy, it could mean another three to five years of court battles. It’s Kent’s impression that the building permit Wysocki initially applied for has been sitting for so long that it’s no longer tenable and is unlikely to be approved. But, he admits, “I’ve given up trying to guess.”

Carrell remains troubled. She grew up believing farmers to be good stewards of the land and the water, and she has been “shocked at revelations since our battle began.”

“It’s taken my peace of mind knowing a corporation can do something like this to a community,” Carrell said.

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost.