Human and Cow Manure Plague Sixty Percent of Kewaunee Wells

Scientists confirmed on June 7 what everyone with any brain capacity already knew:  There is way too much manure on the fractured karst landscape of this peninsula.

Too much cow manure and too much human manure for the fragile landscape we live on. Yet, we continue to pile poop on it and wonder why we can’t drink the water.

Perhaps the most significant statement made during a night of significant statements about contaminated water in Kewaunee County came when one of the presenters said by now even the layman should understand why so many private wells in the county are contaminated with fecal matter and various viruses and pathogens.

In fact, several times during the presentation at the Kewaunee County Fairgrounds in Luxemburg, Mark Borchardt said you don’t have to be a scientist to know where the pollution is coming from.

We should first point out that we are referring to Mark Borchardt the respected Wisconsin-based U.S. Dept. of Agriculture research microbiologist, not Mark Borchardt the Wisconsin-based director of Coven and star of the acclaimed 1999 documentary American Movie.

Two days after this field was spread with manure on Oct. 26, 2016, water from a nearby a home turned brown, with contamination directly tied to the manure.

The meeting in the fairgrounds hall was called so Borchardt and his research associate Maureen Muldoon, professor of hydrogeology and environmental geology at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, could present their findings from a randomized testing of wells in Kewaunee County.

They went into great detail about the testing and results, but before they got to any of that, they explained why the karst landscape presents such a problem for maintaining a contaminant-free aquifer.

Muldoon, who has been studying the geology and aquifer of this region for decades, explained that the Silurian dolomite aquifer we live on is fraught with cracks, both vertical and horizontal. If there are contaminants on the surface or subsurface, in the case of septic systems, gravity will impel them to find the cracks and eventually, inevitably, work their way down to the water we rely on to live.

“Water can move very quickly through these fractures,” Muldoon said.

Borchardt said the aquifer here moves more like a river than a typical sluggish aquifer.

Muldoon, who did tracer studies on the area’s aquifer for her PhD, described the peninsula’s aquifer as a superhighway, moving the same amount of water in one day that a more normal sand aquifer would move in a year.

Borchardt then took the floor to explain the randomized well testing they devised, and why it was important to do it that way. He said previous well testing reports had been criticized as biased. He said they had access to a list of all 4,896 private wells in Kewaunee County, and using a random number generator, they chose 621 wells to sample. A third of those wells (208) tested high for bacteria or nitrate.

Muldoon explained that 131 of the wells that tested bad were randomly selected for further testing in order to try to determine the source of contamination. Of those, 79 wells were contaminated. Forty wells tested positive for bovine manure, 29 for human manure and seven had both.

Testing revealed the expected results that wells in areas with deeper soil had less contamination. They tested wells in soil depths of 0 to 5 feet and found 46 percent of them were contaminated, while 28 percent of the wells in soil depths of 5 to 20 feet were infected.

“Pay attention to depth of bedrock. That’s a very important parameter,” Muldoon said.

Borchardt said it’s pretty obvious what the problem is, with 97,000 cattle producing 700 million tons of waste annually, and 4,822 septic systems in the county dealing with 200 million gallons of human wastewater annually.

“That’s one large fecal source on the landscape,” Borchardt said.

The one-time sampling showed a 60 percent well contamination rate in Kewaunee County.

“It’s my professional opinion based on my 25 years’ experience, that if we sampled more than once, this would creep up to 90 percent,” Borchardt said.

In addition to fecal matter, Borchardt said the testing also found cryptosporidium in 12 percent of the wells and high concentrations of rotavirus A in 14 percent of the wells, along with E. coli, salmonella and rotavirus C, which Borchardt said he’s never seen in groundwater in the U.S. before.

He added that making the phone call to the owners of wells with salmonella “were some of the hardest professional days I had. I know I’m getting a little mushy, but I care a lot about this county and the people who participated in this study.”

Borchardt said the No. 1 question from the study participants was “What can I do about my water?”

He suggested a reverse osmosis system, which is what is used in his lab to create water so pure it has no taste. He also said ultraviolet light is effective for killing pathogens, but suspected it wouldn’t work so well with the hard water of the area.

He also said he is working with Kevin Erb of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Extension to create an early warning system to predict groundwater contamination.

He added that if you have brown tap water, that is bovine contamination.

“Brown water events are not human, they are bovine. You don’t need my fancy methods. Just use your nose,” he said.

During a Q&A session, Borchardt was asked if less manure on the landscape would result in less well contamination.

“You don’t need a scientist for that,” he said. “Remove the fecal source and you remove the contamination.”

After the meeting, Rep. Joel Kitchens, whose district includes Kewaunee County, said he had received the well contamination data about a month ago and was surprised at the amount of human fecal contamination, which prompted him to call the Kewaunee County Sanitarian to ask about the septic system situation in the county.

“Kewaunee County has a really big backlog of problematic septic systems that they have not forced people to fix,” he said, adding that the county is aware of 70 to 80 failed septic systems. “They have to do something about that. More than 40 percent of the contaminated wells were from human waste. That should be fixable, for the most part.”

Kitchens said he hopes the Clean Water Access Bill he and Sen. Rob Cowles wrote and that passed the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy last week will help county residents who need to replace septic systems. The bill would allow municipalities to make low-interest or no-interest loans providing up to 75 percent of costs, up to $16,000, to replace a contaminated well or private wastewater treatment system.

And while Kitchens said it may seem to be a hopeless situation for clean water in those shallow soil areas, he has faith in the rewrite of state statute 151 regarding runoff management in sensitive karst areas.

“What I’m hopeful for, when the new rules come out, which will be pretty soon, I don’t think we’ll ever be able to put a cap on and say you can’t have cows in this area, but I think we can severely limit them spreading anything on those shallow soils,” he said. “For the CAFOs, they’re not allowed to spread on anything less than two feet of soil, which still is not that great. But smaller farms can spread on them. So we’re going to have to have severe restrictions on those areas.”

Maybe solid manure is applied to those shallow farm fields rather than liquid manure, which so easily finds the cracks in the topography, Kitchens suggested.

“I think there are a lot of things that can help, but it’s never going to be 100 percent,” he said. “We are making progress there. Rewriting 151 is a huge deal. My path ahead is to make sure it has teeth and is adequate to protect the groundwater.”

Kitchens said the bill should be out in about a month, followed by public hearings.

“I hope people get involved in that,” he said.

Kewaunee County announced on June 9 that it is proposing to amend its sanitary ordinance for private wastewater treatment systems. The proposal would require that every septic system that was installed before Jan. 1, 1985, must undergo a soil evaluation before Oct. 1, 2021.

Kewaunee County will host a public hearing on the proposed amendment on Wednesday, June 14, at 4 pm in the county board room of the Kewaunee County Administration Center, 810 Lincoln St., Kewaunee.

The Kewaunee County Zoning Office will also accept written comments on the proposal until June 12. Those who would like to submit a comment, may do so in person or by mail, Kewaunee County Zoning Office, 810 Lincoln St., Kewaunee, WI 54216.