Let’s gather to protect our water…

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As the saying goes, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single canoe ride.”

Well maybe that’s not exactly how the saying goes, but the sentiment applies to the Friends of the Central Sand’s Water Reality event coming up on May 18. It’s your chance to have a great time outdoors while taking an important step toward moving Wisconsin ahead in its long and determined drive to create a better, more sustainable future for our waters.

It starts at 9:30 a.m. at the Lake Lucerne Camp and Retreat Center near Wautoma, and when it ends at 3 p.m. you’ll be smarter, more tired, and maybe even more tan if the weather cooperates. And you won’t be that much lighter in the wallet. Tickets are only $15 on the day of the event, and $10 if you buy in advance.

For this modest amount, you not only get the canoe rides, if that’s what floats your boat, but you help defray the mounting legal costs in the brave battle for healthy waters in Wisconsin. The canoes are provided for free as are bikes, helmets, and guided and unguided trail hikes. There’s a raffle too, and a silent auction, but the best part is the conversation.

A panel of local and national environmental experts will be speaking about the threats to our waters and what we can do about them. Threats like the sprawling factory farms, agriculture and other forces that are menacing our most important resource all over the state.

You’ll want to hear fresh perspectives from Edward Engle, a retired DNR real estate specialist and longtime land champion; public interest attorney Kim Ferraro; Goldman Environmental Prize winner Lynn Henning; noted environmental authors Justin Isherwood and John Ikerd; water resources Professor George Kraft; and Jamie Saul, the legal chair for the Sierra Club’s John Muir chapter.  Top that off with Lindsay Wood Davis, former chair and now emeritus board member of River Alliance of Wisconsin and George Meyer, long time DNR professional and former DNR Secretary (retired).

It all boils down to water so this event is an opportunity to learn and help the cause at the same time!  Among the many groups that will be available to interact and share what they are doing to protect our waters are the PEW Charitable Trusts, the Central Sands Water Action Coalition, Wisconsin Lakes, the Sustain Rural Wisconsin Network, River Alliance of Wisconsin, the Midwest Environmental Defense Network, and the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation. They’ll all be setting up tables at the event and explaining what they’re doing to advance the cause.

Bring your own ideas, along with your curiosity and maybe some extra space in the car for whatever you pick up at the raffle or silent auction. The prize list is impressive and fairly enormous. How about a trolling motor, a fishing kayak, an airplane tour, a big screen TV, a guided fly fishing trip or pheasant hunt or a weekend getaway on Pleasant Lake or the Dells?

Some items are autographed, others are delicious. For instance, there’s a year’s supply of Organic Valley milk and baskets of locally grown organic veggies. And if just thinking about that makes you hungry, box lunches will be available for $7.50 apiece.

You can learn more by visiting www.waterreality.org. If you’re looking for healthy fun and you care about supporting the fight for healthy water in Wisconsin, you don’t want to miss this event.




Ah…the DNR… what is a Mission anyway?

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The “mission” of the environmental agency on its website sounds comforting, almost idyllic. It reads:

“To protect and enhance our natural resources:

our air, land and water; our wildlife, fish and forests and the ecosystems that sustain all life.

To provide a healthy, sustainable environment

and a full range of outdoor opportunities.

To ensure the right of all people

to use and enjoy these resources in their work and leisure.

To work with people

to understand each other’s views and to carry out the public will.

And in this partnership

consider the future and generations to follow.”

That’s the “mission” of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources as revised on their website less than one month ago (Feb. 27, 2013). But when their leaders appear in public, they make statements that appear very much at odds with those laudable notions.

When DNR Deputy Secretary Matt Moroney made a presentation recently at the Agricultural Community Engagement seminar last week, the Agri-Views news site reported this tidbit: “The DNR is no longer a strong advocate one way or another on environmental issues, [Moroney] told local rural officials and farmers.”

How does this position reflect the mission of the agency?  Now, mind you, ACE is comprised of the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Counties Association and Wisconsin Towns Association.  But I have to wonder if Mr. Maroney was simply playing to his audience or, far worse, reflecting the mindset of the agency.  He is, after all, the second in command.

The threat that CAFOs pose to our state are well-detailed. But let’s look at just one practice mentioned in this article that threatens to harm our air and water quality: manure spraying. The article sheds some light on some meetings over the last year that most residents know nothing about:

“Moroney said the DNR is supportive of the concept of precision manure irrigation. The practice is already allowed under DNR rules, but there hasn’t been a lot of research. He thinks it’s a viable alternative to spreading manure in spring and fall, but he cautioned, there’s need to ensure human health is protected. Disease-transport research with the UW College of Agriculture and Live Sciences at the Marshfield Ag Research Station will look at how far manure vapor goes under different conditions. The department, said its deputy secretary, has the goal of finalizing technical standards on precision manure irrigation by June 1. Discussions with producers were held last year, and UW-Extension is facilitating continued talks.”

Technical standards established by June 1 on a topic for which “there hasn’t been a lot of research”? June 1 is right around the corner.  Shouldn’t we as citizens be concerned that these conversations are taking place, and that no rules are in place to assure transparency and input from all comers? The article further states, “If any regulations are necessary regarding precision manure irrigation, they’ll be science-based, he stressed.”   There is too much at stake here to rush to a decision. And, as we have often seen over the last two years, the public is often the last to know about actions that will affect their health and quality of life in Wisconsin.

The enormous challenges and threats to our natural resources include sand mining, mineral extraction, CAFOs, and high-capacity well usage.  If the DNR is no longer an advocate on environmental issues, as Mr. Moroney points out, the ending to this story has already been written.  I hope that the good citizens of Wisconsin will hold the DNR accountable to its mission.  We deserve nothing less.

Link to article:




Having a win is a lot of work…

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Susan Turner’s attitude toward technology could be summed up best by the title her husband gave her when she launched the fight to keep a 1,500-acre mega-dairy out of her neighborhood. He dubbed her the “assistant monkey wrench.”

Since then, her family has promoted the irrepressible mother of five to “head monkey wrench.” Either way, she’s shown that old school tools can trump computers when it comes to rallying people. And she rallied hundreds for a totally improbable, insanely successful five-year battle with California factory farmer A.J. Bos.

Last November Turner’s HOMES (Helping Others Maintain Environmental Standards) organization forced Bos to shut down his proposed 4,200-head operation in northwest Illinois, even though it was 60% completed. This was the first community ever to halt a CAFO after it had broken ground, and when you ask Turner what advice she would give to anyone who hopes to follow her example, she laughs.

“I’d say to get off the computer,” she said. “The computer is so clean psychologically. You just work things out, and you kind of have a wind at your keyboard. But that just isn’t the case when you have to get funds. We didn’t even have a website for probably the first month.”

What HOMES had instead was a tenacious campaign that started with a letter and a post office box, grew with endless face-to-face contacts and ended with a grass roots victory that no one could have seen coming. A hard drive? That’s what Bos experienced when he had to pack up without milking a single cow.

“I sent this hand-addressed letter snail mail to 500 addresses from petitions — industry addresses from hospitality, real estate, health care and salon businesses – and even suspected supporters of the project,” Turner recalled. “It was like fishing. You never know what you’ll catch.

“I also placed the letter in a small ad and ran it in two newspapers, and I began writing monthly letter to the editor at the same time. I was pretending to be about three people. Without a computer, I found many of the immediate residences that would be the first victims of pollution. They were afraid and hiding. I gave them an anonymous way to fight.”

The letter was four brief paragraphs outlining the environmental dangers of the CAFO and asking for financial support. The response was overwhelming.

“After the first mailing, $12,000 arrived in the post office box in three weeks,” Turner said. “People would hand me money at the grocery store and just walk away. So I kept collecting addresses and writing new letters. I began to meet and develop relationships with donors. Sometimes they would come to the courthouse to sit with me, or hand me a $2,500 or a $7,000 check right in front of Bos or his lobbyist. We fundraised right in front of their noses.”

Computers did have their place in the campaign of course. It was just kind of a small place. There was a website, and there was Pay Pal. HOMES used whatever weapons it could find to raise the $550,000 that it took to send Bos packing.

“Pay Pal on the website was less than 10%,” Turner said. “Talk is cheap. The rest came from direct interaction and fundraising events. But the most money came from the post office box. Sometimes it was $10 or $50 or $500. Some was cash with no return address. Some were cashier’s checks. We sent thank you’s and receipts out if we had the address. I kept a log for whatever came through the post office box.”

Turner also did a little outdoor advertising. She was in the process of selling the building that housed her art and antique shop in downtown Warren, Ill., and moving the business across the street when she learned about the CAFO plans. The three-story building had two giant picture windows and a fence, and Turner used every available inch of space on them to post signs and throw what she described as a “visual hissy fit.”

“This is what I called the Wilma Flintstone Website,” she said.

It might have been funnier if the subject weren’t so serious for so many people. They didn’t all agree with her either. And they didn’t all disagree legally. Turner said her house was vandalized repeatedly, and in some cases she knew who the vandals were. But there was no money left over to prosecute anyone.

Sweat equity played a big role in the campaign. Turner recalled a Fed Ex truck showing up at her attorney’s place carrying 35 cases of documents from the Bos camp. Volunteers had to sift through every one of them on the chance that something important might be there. Volunteers don’t have billable hours. It was times like that when Turner had to know who her friends were.

“There were people who were right away against the CAFO, and there were people who were just for it,” she said. “And then other people just totally hid or were neutral. Sometimes those people were more dangerous than the ones I knew were going to oppose me.

“People had a vested interest in the project, even if it was a very short job or short gig. Be it a guy who’s drilling a well or shoving some earth around with excavating equipment. It might be a merchant who thinks he’s going to sell some hammers or paint to a guy. Or land owners that want to grow the silage for the site. It’s a lot of stuff. They have this whacky peer pressure, like the dairyman who burned our road signs. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t have to make sense.”

What did have to make sense was the message that HOMES was sending to its neighbors. And the people there learned quickly that it would take a lot of hard work to deliver it.

“The assistant attorney general was in my dining room with about 30 concerned people,” Turner recalled. “And she told us, ‘Everything you’re saying is absolutely valid. We understand why you’re fighting, and you have every reason to fight. But we are not your white horse. You have to fight this yourself.’”

Fought it they did. And they won. Without a white horse. Or a lot of computers.



It sure feels good to win…

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When a California factory farmer decided to go east to expand his operation, he thought he’d found just the place in Jo Daviess County, just over the Wisconsin border in northwest Illinois. He’d been led to believe he’d get a rubber stamp from the Illinois Department of Agriculture for a 1,500-acre, 4,200-head mega-dairy. What he got instead was a five-year legal battle that sent him home $25 million poorer, thanks to a firestorm from stubborn citizens who loved their land and their lifestyle. They were led by a local shop keeper and mother of five, who was electronically challenged, didn’t like confrontation and couldn’t spell “environment.” Apparently, she couldn’t say “uncle” either, or A.J. Bos and friends might not have abandoned a project that was already 60% built and sold the acreage without milking a single cow. A landmark settlement announced last November by the Illinois Pollution Control Board marked the first time a community had ever halted construction of a CAFO after ground had been broken. Making it happen required time, determination, frustration and lots of money. And somebody like Susan Turner to put all of that together.

Talk of Bos’ proposal had already been going around for more than a year before Turner and her husband attended a public hearing at the local high school in January of 2008. “I’d seen some letters to the editor, but I didn’t know what a CAFO was,” she recalled. “I was thinking they’re talking about our water getting polluted, but I just kept thinking some agency would take care of that or the sheriff would get them. I was really pretty ignorant.” Turner didn’t stay that way for long. A lot of what she heard at the hearing that night just didn’t ring true. For one thing, the project engineer rattled off seepage rate statistics that her chemistry teacher husband knew didn’t add up. For another, the developers didn’t seem at all grounded. Literally. “They said there was no karst for 12 miles,” Turner said, referring to the fractured bedrock that makes the county’s soil porous and highly vulnerable to groundwater pollution. “Well, there’s karst in my yard. We have an extremely shallow aquifer, and they were going to dig 20 feet deep to make a manure pit. I’m like, ‘You’re going to be hitting the karst, and that’s where the water is.’

“They kept talking about enhancing tourism with a mega-dairy. I was in the tourism business, and I just kind of kept banging my head, because it didn’t seem like something the county needed. So why were they using that to bring in a big honking dairy? They totally hit my crazy button, and I could see I was like the crazy lady running down the street for help, and that wasn’t going to be enough.” The result was an organization called HOMES It stands for Helping Others Maintain Environmental Standards, and it was Bos’ most expensive nightmare. A month after the hearing at the high school, the Jo Daviess’ County Board voted, 11-5, to deny him a permit. But he ignored the decision and bought the land anyway for $9 million. It seemed like a good idea, too, when the Illinois Department of Agriculture issued its own permit on May 30. Four days later, HOMES sued to stop construction.

What followed was a convoluted legal battle that raged from Bos’ land to Springfield, Ill., to Washington, D.C. Judges, politicians, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the lieutenant governor’s office, the attorney general’s office, the road commissioner, the village attorney and a cadre of environmental organizations all got in on the fun. At one point, the US EPA even sued the Illinois EPA. At another, a tributary to the Apple River turned bright purple because of the over-application of silage leachate. It was this last outrage that prompted the Illinois Attorney General to file charges against the dairy that eventually resulted in the settlement that sent Bos back to California.

And none of it was cheap.

Turner owned an art store/antique store/coffee beanery on the main street of little Warren, Ill., when she dived into the fray, and she was planning to sell her building and move the business into a bigger facility across the street. She did sell, but she never made the move. Instead the proceeds went to establishing the HOMES treasury. “I sold the building and the inventory, and that went to court,” Turner said. “I didn’t get to reopen my business. Nobody else would sign the lawyer’s retainer. I was physically ill when I had to do that, but it was like you either fight this now or you move away. Cathy Hicks, my lifelong friend, signed on a couple of days later. Between Cathy and I, we were HOMES’ first $100,000, but we didn’t tell anybody because everybody would think we could just keep coughing up money. We didn’t have any more after that. We had to fund raise.”

And fund raise they did, collecting a total of $550,000 to combat Bos’ bottomless pockets. It would have been worse if they hadn’t found a sympathetic attorney. “My lawyer only charged us $100 an hour,” Turner said. “He was originally from Chicago, and he thought he was coming out here to retire and open a magician’s shop on the main street in Galena. He saw the corruption. He saw how they were breaking the rules and were going to get away with it. “We were ready to throw ourselves under the bus, but not to quit. There were low points, because they shifted the burden of proof onto us in court. The court was at this point going to ignore anything scientific. We knew going in that we would lose the last court hearing. We went to appeals and lost there, too. The only thing we got was A.J. Bos was not allowed to sue us because he built at his own risk, and citizens have every right to protect their homes.”

In the end, HOMES won through the permitting process what it lost in court, but it was never easy. “It’s like spinning plates,” Turner said. “You have to get them all balanced and spinning at the same time. Some are going to work, and some aren’t. There’s no safety net. There’s no guarantee that you’ll be this big hero or anything. You have chumps in your town who beat you up over it. They harassed us. They vandalized our house. “I painted 30 road signs, and they were stolen and burned in this other dairyman’s field because he wanted to show the farm bureau people that he was going to support the dairy. He was lied to, and he just wanted to show he was one of the good old boys. We replaced the signs within 24 hours. “I’ve had the lug nuts on my car loosened twice in the same month. I’ve had my tires slashed. I’ve had people drive across my lawn. I get hate mail and stuff over the phone.” And yet when Turner’s asked if she’d do it all again, she doesn’t miss hesitate to say yes. Would she do anything differently? “I don’t think so,” she said. “The people who rose to the occasion through our post office box … it still baffles me. The economy was getting worse as we were going through the courts, but they saw that something was being done, and we didn’t quit. Even though, it was nasty, we just kept chugging along.”

We’ll tell you more about that post office box and those people next time.



Winter settles in…

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It is our first major snow fall of the year.  It is eerily quiet.  The snow has a magical way of dampening all sound.  Just yesterday we heard the hundreds of geese as they gently floated by our shore.  It is a wonderful time of year here in Coloma.  A special time.  But we can’t help but wonder how long it will stay this way.  A steady stream of stories float in from nearby Grand Marsh about the effects of the New Chester Dairy.  We hear about the large number of trucks coming and going from the production site.  We hear about the number of semi-trucks of waste parading to surrounding fields.  A recent spill requiring fire department to clean the roadway, we heard.  And yet that CAFO isn’t even up to capacity yet having recently been approved to double in size only a few months after its opening.  But the smell…already we hear about the smell!  Good neighbors we are told.  Great jobs we are told.  We won’t bother you, you won’t smell a thing.  We wonder how true… how true?

All of us in Wisconsin have been blessed with a beautiful world all around us.  We are blessed with wildlife and wild places.  We are used to an abundance of water in our lakes, streams and wetlands.  We enjoy pure drinking water.  But what about our future?  Already these resources are being damaged.  Our waters are disappearing more and more each year.  Our natural world is being destroyed to the point that hunting, hiking, fishing, swimming, birding, boating… all are starting to be affected.  Is it too late to turn the tide?

As we come to the end of the year and to this Christmas season please remember all that with which we have been blessed.  We turn our gaze back to the geese now…floating as the snow comes down… heading for shore to huddle with one another.  We wonder what they would say if they could talk…What they would do if they could…if they only knew.


Now you see it …..

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Picture Lake Mendota, the scenic treasure where the sailboats glide and the students stroll. It’s big, it’s wet, and it’s all ours. Now picture it gone.

Hard to imagine, but if you can do that, you can get an idea of what’s going on underground in the Central Sands area of Wisconsin. According to the US Geological Survey, a combined 78 billion gallons of water are pumped out of Adams, Waushara and Portage Counties every year. That’s enough to empty Lake Mendota in two years. 

Of course, the water isn’t coming out of there, so the sailboats are safe for awhile. But it is coming from lakes and streams in the region, and it’s threatening the existence of some of them. For example, this summer’s drought had the Little Plover River down to a trickle, while Long Lake dried up six years ago. The list grows every year, and that won’t change until the problem is  taken seriously.

When will that happen? The experts only wish they knew.

One of those experts is UW-Stevens Point Professor George Kraft, the director of the Central Wisconsin Groundwater Center. Dr. Kraft takes a long view of the situation,  but he’s afraid most people don’t.   

“That’s something out there too far to grapple with,” he says. “Some deny it’s an issue. They don’t believe the science. They come up with very interesting ideas that the water comes from somewhere else, that it’s not connected to the lakes and streams.”

It’s mostly a local issue in central Wisconsin now, but people who study it say it’s becoming a statewide concern. Bodies of water that haven’t been harmed before will be threatened soon if something isn’t done to balance the needs of agriculture with the future of the resource.

A happy medium has been found in other places. The trick is to set minimum water levels in the lakes and manage the water table in such a way that they never go under below those levels.

“The interesting thing is we’re probably never going to lower the aquifer enough that the people who are pumping will be harmed,” said Kraft. “We may dry up every lake and stream, but all you have to do is drop the water levels a few feet to have a dry stream or a dry lake, but you might still have 60 to 70 feet of water you can pump from the aquifer.”

Not that anyone wants to dry up every lake and stream. Kraft recognizes an honest difference of opinion when he sees one, and he counsels patience. “You have to give the people using the resource some adjustment time,” he said. “We’re not going to do this in one year.

“I think of it as ‘What would Jesus do?’ I would make our pumping policies for groundwater consistent with ones we already have in place for direct surface withdrawals and look to manage the resource so that we can have the maximum amount of water for economic enterprise consistent  with having healthy surface water.”

A reasonable approach. Like Lake Mendota, it holds a lot of water.



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.  



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