Water, water….where did you go?

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Both major political parties are holding their collective breath these days waiting to see whether Wisconsin will be a red state or a blue state in November, but everybody knows what color it is now. It’s a brown state.

            Lawns and fields everywhere have gone drab thanks to this summer’s record setting drought. We’ve lost grass and corn at a frightening rate, and we’ve lost something even more precious that may never come back. We’ve lost ground water. And when that happens, our lakes and streams can never be safe.

            In some parts of the state, stream flows have fallen five to ten per cent this summer. Those are the lucky parts. In the Central Sands region, scientists say it’s been more like 60%. And it’s no coincidence that Portage, Waushara and Adams Counties rank first, second and fourth among the counties that pump the most water for irrigation.   

            On a typical irrigated field, as much as a foot of water has been taken out of the aquifer this year, and that translates to dropping water levels in some places by up to three feet. The US Geological Survey well at Hancock was going down an inch every two days during irrigation season.

            So where does all that water go? The simple answer is “away.” For a more complicated response, we turn to an expert.

 George Kraft, Ph.D., is a professor of water resources at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point. He’s also the director of the Center for Watershed Science and Education, and the director of the Central Wisconsin Groundwater Center, so he’s clearly qualified to point us in the right direction.

            “We get an average of 30 to 32 inches of rain around here,” he explains, “and we don’t get very much run-off. Mostly the plants suck it up through the roots and send, in rough numbers, 20 inches back up into the atmosphere and then about 10 inches percolate past the roots and become ground water and eventually stream fall. The lakes are kind of just holes that go beneath the water table, and the ground water is filling them, too.”

            It would seem then that if two-thirds of the rain goes back into the atmosphere and the other third goes into the ground, we wind up breaking even. But that’s not how it works, according to Dr. Kraft, because the water that goes up here comes down somewhere else, usually hundreds of miles away. Our rain comes from different places, and there hasn’t been nearly enough of it lately.

            “I think about the aquifer being like a bank account, except it’s storing water,” Kraft said. “And we’re taking more water out of this bank account than we’re putting in during a very dry time.”

            In other words, we’re overdrawn when it comes to ground water, and the prospect of getting even again down the road are pretty grim.

Asked how long it would take to recover what we’ve lost of our water table if we were to have average rain fall, Kraft said, “It would takes years. What we’ve seen over the last two to four decades is a steady decline. It’s very steady, but gradual. At the Hancock well, we figure the aquifer is about three and half feet down compared to where it should be, but that’s happened over two decades. It’s not a straight path. It’s kind of a wobbly one. There was USGS work that warned of this exact thing in the sixties.”

But we never seem to learn. If we don’t reverse the trend toward vanishing ground water, Kraft says we can expect to see more harmed lakes and streams all over the state. “And by harmed,” he said, “I mean, you don’t have to dry something up before it’s harmed.”

No, you just have to keep bouncing those checks.  




This is not your Daddy’s manure!

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Cow poop… we have all smelled it, and it’s almost a part of the Wisconsin quaintness. I am sure you have seen the shirts “We love our dairy aire”.

In the “normal” farming scheme the handling of manure is part of the daily or weekly routine. Cows are able to go outside to do their business and the manure is naturally applied over a grazing area where the natural process of the manure breaking down fertilizes the grass for the continued growth. In many areas, rotational grazing has become a very ecologically sound feeding method, and allows the natural process of fertilization and growth to take place. When these cows are in the milking barn, they still need to take care of business. Any manure in the barn is scraped into a gutter where it is conveyed outside to a waiting manure spreader and hauled out to the fields on an almost daily trip. In the winter the farmer can’t spread due to restrictions on spreading on snow to prevent runoff, so the manure is usually stored in a relatively small tank or “slurry store” until spring comes and the cycle resumes. With this process the odor and ground water issues are minimized as the manure is in a fairly “solid” form.

Now let’s contrast that with the factory farm. You can pretty much drop the “farm” part; it’s a milk production factory.  Here the cows stay inside all day, all year. They are “bedded” in sand. Operators will tell you the sand is the most comfortable thing for the cows! But I would venture to say that the real reason is that compared to normal straw bedding, it’s cheap and reusable. And this is where the factory is so different than the farm. When the cows do their business inside, it collects in their sand bedding. This sand is then hauled outside where it goes thru a washing process to remove the waste, and then is reused. The washing process increases the volume of the manure over. Instead of a fairly solid waste, we now have a very liquid stew that is pumped to holding lagoons capable of holding millions of gallons of waste. And it’s not just poop and water. Because the cows are kept indoors all year, which is not natural, they are subject to illness more than normal, so antibiotics are routinely used. These drugs along with birthing residue, heavy metals from feed, and hormones, all end up in this soup. In the lagoons the natural process of manure breakdown begins, only in volumes unimaginable. The volume of hazardous gases such as ammonia that are emitted would result in a normal factory being shut down, but “agriculture” is exempt from enforcement of these emissions.

Now the slurry sits in the lagoon for weeks or months until the time is right for spreading. Then thousands of truckloads will be taken out and spread on area fields. If the New Chester expansion is granted, the “area” fields will be for miles as they will need 38,000 acres to spread it all! At the proposed Richfield site (Coloma) they will use 16,000 acres. The spreading of this slurry is where the factory presents so much more of a problem than the farm. The fermented manure has a smell that is in NO way similar to the normal “dairy aire”.  Because the manure is in such a fermented liquid form as it is sprayed, it easily becomes aerosolized. The microscopic droplets are then picked up on the wind so that anyone within miles will be well aware that spreading is taking place. The other big issue, especially here in the central sands region, is that this liquid can easily begin its trip down thru the ground, to our water supply, or run to nearby streams.

So next time you hear someone from a factory farm explaining what a great product their manure is and how much it will help us all, you will know that line is a Crock of, uhm, poop.




Ahhh..Fresh Air!

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I just love having the windows in the house open. The sound of the wind in the trees, the freshness the air brings into the house. With the brutal summer we had, it’s something I have really missed. Having the air conditioner going has been a blessing, but it really makes the house feel closed up. When it cooled down last week, the first night sleeping with a gentle breeze blowing in was heaven.

Sometimes we don’t truly appreciate things until they are gone. The closing of my windows made me appreciate the fresh air all the more. But even worse it got me thinking, ” what if I lose this for good?”

With the potential for a large factory farm to go in a little over a mile away, that is a real possibility. With having over 4000 confined cows as neighbors, the chances are the air is not going to be fresh any more. With millions of gallons of manure being stored and then spread on 16,000 acres, there should be a lot of people with the same concerns. Just because they live miles away doesn’t mean that they won’t have the same issues as immediate neighbors.

We hear of people living in the Grand Marsh area already reporting issues with smell and traffic. One person told me about having to take a family gathering indoors due to the smell. Another told me they were driving up County G, 3 miles east and when they were downwind of the dairy, they were forced to roll up their car windows!

And it’s not just the smell. I worry about the health effects to our family. Reading the emission estimates from the DNR environmental assessments (EA) for Grand Marsh and Coloma dairies is enough to give you nightmares. The latest DNR documents concerning the expansion of the New Chester (Grand Marsh) list ammonia emissions at 200- 350 TONS per year, and hydrogen sulfide at 15 TONS per year!  Studies of CAFOs have found airborne biological contaminants as far as 3 miles from the source! And we are all supposed to breathe this?

The DNR EA for New Chester expansion states “There is little dispute that large animal agriculture operations have the potential to create large air quality concerns”.

I am really going to enjoy my open window tonight, while I still can.