S&S Jerseyland Dairy LLC, Door County’s only concentrated animal feeding operation, has just been issued a permit to expand their herd by the Department of Natural Resources.
While the operation is currently allowed to house approximately 6,000 cattle, the new permit will authorize over 10,000.
This decision has been met by considerable opposition from the local community. In March, a public hearing on the expansion drew a large crowd. Many people came to voice concerns of how the expansion could impact water quality.
Unease is likely due to water quality issues in neighboring Kewaunee County, which is home to 16 concentrated animal feeding operations.
Lynn Utesch, Kewaunee resident, grass-fed beef farmer and one of the founders of Kewaunee Citizens Advocating Responsible Environmental Stewardship, said that his county has experienced “massive groundwater issues,” which he attributes to the region’s large-scale agricultural production.
Utesch is particularly concerned with how S&S Jerseyland Dairy LLC could impact the Ahnapee River, which is already listed as impaired by the EPA, and which flows near the dairy before running through Kewaunee County into Lake Michigan.
Water quality has been such a problem in Kewaunee County that in 2014, environmental groups asked the Environmental Protection Agency for emergency action.
Despite this effort, contamination remains an issue in the area today. As a result, a local school offers a clean water kiosk to residents who have contaminated wells.
A 2016 report by the groundwater collaboration workgroup which was assembled by the Wisconsin DNR, concedes that the application of cattle manure is a potential source of groundwater nitrates and pathogens, both of which have been problematic in Kewaunee County.
The report also noted that Kewaunee’s shallow soils, which overlay fractured bedrock, facilitate rapid movement of contaminants making the region more vulnerable to water pollution.
According to a report by UW-Extension, much of Door County has this same fractured bedrock and thin soil, meaning that groundwater there is also highly susceptible to pollutants.
Kevin Masarik, groundwater education specialist from the Center for Watershed Science and Education, said that although concentrated animal feeding operations are required to follow regulations to manage the risk of groundwater contamination there will always be some impact. Masarik said, it is “virtually impossible to guarantee that there won’t be any nutrients or pathogens lost.”
Masarik said that the local geography in Kewaunee and Door County makes minimizing this impact difficult. For this reason, regulations alone may not be enough to ensure safe water, especially in years with large rainstorms or wet springs.
However, Masarik pointed out that this contamination does not necessarily all come from concentrated animal feeding operations.
Masarik said, “the reality is that in those areas anything you do on the land surface has the potential to impact groundwater. So, whether it be spreading manure or whether it be septic systems in those areas, in every activity, we have to take extra precautions.”
There has been some movement in the dairy industry to acknowledge and try to minimize water quality impacts. For these efforts, Masarik said, “they deserve some credit for at least helping to move the needle forward.”
One group called Peninsula Pride is an organization of dairy farmers in Kewaunee and Door Counties. The organization’s website said they aim to address water quality issues by educating farmers about better practices and helping families with contaminated water.
The S&S Jerseyland Dairy LLC website said that they try to reduce fertilizer use on their cropland and employ practices to reduce erosion.
Despite these efforts, the groundwater in this region remains vulnerable.
Utesch said, “This is not just a local issue, this is a statewide issue and there are people all over the state of Wisconsin that are looking at this and are extremely upset that our state government is not regulating these CAFOs and making it so that people’s health and welfare is being protected.”