Don’t wait on the science before helping victims of groundwater pollution

Photo by Chuck Wagn

Photo by Chuck Wagner

Gov. Scott Walker recently visited Kewaunee County, promising that our groundwater pollution problems would be addressed by “science based” solutions. Having recently gutted the state Department of Natural Resources science staff considerably, the governor’s words not only echoed as disingenuous, but filled with hypocrisy.

Thirty-four percent of the tested wells in Kewaunee are contaminated with E. coli, high nitrates, or both. In 2014, a U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher equated well water samples he had tested in the town of Lincoln to what one would expect to find in a Third World country.

For citizens living with water contamination, Walker’s words and the associated DNR and federal Environmental Protection Agency work group meetings that have been under way since last September, which promise short-term solutions, compliance, and recommendations and regulations to address our contamination — have become synonymous with futility and further delay. They are seen as ineffective responses to those living daily with water they cannot drink, brush their teeth with, bathe or wash their produce in — hence, water that they cannot use in their homes; water that poses a threat to their health and well-being.

Those living without clean, accessible water deserve better than the posturing of help on the way, as days and years go by without relief.

We must not wait on “science” as the antidote necessary for corrective and emergency responses to take place while people suffer. Compassion and help must be given to those in need without the contingency that definitive answers be found as to “why” such contamination exists before aid can be given.

While the governor and other leadership relate that we do not know where our contamination comes from, we certainly have a good idea — and it’s based on facts. With 82 percent of Kewaunee’s residential septics up to code, the potential for contamination coming from septics should be minimal. However, Kewaunee currently has over 98,000 head of cattle — almost five times as many cows as it has humans. Millions of gallons of untreated waste are spread on the landscape in Kewaunee, a landscape that includes the uniqueness of the Niagara Escarpment and the karst topography that leaves us so vulnerable to water contamination.

The industrial farming presence, which has a seat at the table in the work group — and a conflict of interest in these work group discussions — continues to hamper progress and deflect responsibility, all the while extolling the virtues of “nutrients” that poison and pollute our water — manure that has ended up in our lakes and steams, our groundwater and wells.

In cases such as the agricultural pollution found in Yakima Valley, Washington, excessive nutrients have been classified as “dumping,” an overloading of nutrient wastes, applied upon the landscape, that result in runoff that contaminates. Lawsuits have now ensued in these areas, the court ruling that clean water to affected citizenry must be supplied by the violating agricultural operations.

Over and over, nationwide, in Chesapeake Bay, Yakima Valley, Des Moines and Kewaunee — we have seen the failure of “voluntary measures” used in farming to amend behaviors that have the potential to cause great harm to both human health and the environment. Violators must be met with enforcement measures and fines for the costs of their pollution and its cleanup — violators, who have, for too long, externalized their true costs of business to the community and the resources we all share.

For citizens affected with contaminated water through no fault of their own, the wait must be over. It is time for local and state governments, health departments, and agencies to quit waiting on the science, and provide the necessary health and safety measures to those waiting desperately in need of clean, accessible water where they live.

Prioritize human needs first and help others in obtaining life’s most basic human need and right: clean water.

Nancy Utesch is a farmer in Kewaunee County.




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