By Steve Furay
The state of Wisconsin prides itself on its agricultural industry, providing top quality products and employing tens of thousands of workers. As the industry continues to grow, large scale industry continues to develop, particularly animal feeding operations. While these facilities represent economic growth, they are also an enormous challenge for the environment, with water supplies perhaps being the most sensitive. In response, citizens groups in Wisconsin are banding together to fight for their rights to a clean ecology, even conducted their own testing of waters.
Sarah Grainger is civil engineer specializing in pollution control in water systems, and has lived in Wisconsin since 2008. She is a member of the Valley Stewardship Network, holding the position of Water Quality Program Manager. On this spring day in the state’s west side, she has come to train citizens in the process of gathering water quality data to be used by the state’s Department of Natural Resources.
About 15 people have gathered at Mother Earth Green Center in Steuben, Wisconsin, sitting around a table that held equipment to be used for water testing. Most of the participants have become active around the issue of water quality, as the region has seen large scale controlled animal feeding operations (CAFOs) being developed in their area. A CAFO is defined as having 1000 or more animals confined on the site.
“It’s beyond just coming in and learning about water quality and that awareness, there is this real scientific part about what we would be doing,” explains Grainger to the group. “We’re going to do some actual hands on work.”
Grainger continued by explaining the three different levels of testing, and that at this session the training would be for level one, the most basic level. For level one testing, the five parameters that would be measured include temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen levels, turbidity and stream flow. She recommends that this testing take place once per month, being careful that the dates are a month apart, and that the testing occurs at the same time of the day each time.
The first step of the testing is to take a reading of both the air temperature and the water temperature. As Grainger notes, it doesn’t take a scientist to understand the significance of water temperature, even people who fish regularly understand the importance when trying to take home a catch.
“After temperature we talk about pH. So pH is actually measure of hydrogen ions in water,” said Grainger. “And basically what you’ll be doing is taking both of these tubes, you’re filling it up with the same sample, then you’re adding a solution to it. And this is the bromothy-…what is it called?”
“Bromothymol?” responds a man assisting in the training.
“Thank you, that’s what I’m trying to say,” says Grainger with a giggle. “And this will turn it a bluish color. And you only want to do that on one of them because the other one is the sample that you have. And then you put them in here with the color wheel in it. And when you’re through here you’ll turn this little dial (on a color wheel), and match up these two colors. That will tell you a pH.”
“You think, that’s kind of subjective, you’re looking at colors,” she adds, “but it actually has a fair amount of precision. When they do testing, they started to move away from this, but even in drinking water where they’re testing your chlorine in your water, the city wide systems, they actually still in certain places use color wheels.”
When the water’s pH has changed, it is a good indicator that there is an increased amount of photosynthesis occurring. A polluted stream or river experiencing higher amounts of algal and plant growth will see an increase in pH. A change in pH can impact the water by altering the solubility of nutrients in the stream, as well as affecting the health of fish and other aquatic life that are present.
Next to be measured during the testing are dissolved oxygen levels, which is of importance not only to fish, but also the microorganisms that make up a lower end of the food chain. A healthy amount of oxygen is needed to sustain life, but too many organisms present can cause a depletion.
“It gives an indication of the health of the water,” says Grainger. “So if you have high contamination, particularly like runoff, high organic levels, manure, that kind of thing, it will actually take the oxygen out of the water. Not in itself, but the bugs that are eating that as a nutrient source or the other habitat in that could be depleting the oxygen source.”
As a historic farming community, residents of this region understand the potential for environmentally dangerous runoff from animal facilities. Having a large concentration of animals produces an enormous amount of manure which cannot easily be processed. This leads to the potential of harmful runoff into local waterways.
“We’re concerned about a number of issues, including water quality, especially from Vernon and Crawford County where many of us are from,” said Matt Urch, owner and operator of a family farm specializing in grass-fed beef, speaking at a December protest against the close relationship between the DNR and the DBA. “We have very fragile carse topography, and easily contaminated water.”
Last month, a group of organizations stood up and announced a proposed “Citizens Memorandum of Understanding” between their members and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources regarding how the DNR regulates Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). They have contended that the DNR works too closely with the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association (DBA), a lobbying organization of statewide dairy industry professionals, and as a result they have catered to the large farm interests at the expense of environmental safety.
Last September, the New York Times reported on the contamination of over a hundred wells in Brown County, Wisconsin, due to agricultural runoff from the local dairy cow factories. Water tests had shown widespread contamination from E. coli bacteria in the region.
Citizens groups have rallied to have their voices heard against the large agriculture lobbyists. In the meantime, however, the presence of these massive operations has created a threat to their shared water resources. Stepping in to act as stewards of these waters is their way of demonstrating their own control while taking a stand against the DBA’s arrangement with the state.
A particularly sensitive topic with the citizens groups is the DNR’s issuance of general permits to large factory farms, which opened up the question of whether these represent a relaxation of environmental standards.
“The general permits are the result of DNR’s back room deal with the Dairy Business Association, and do nothing to protect Wisconsin communities or water quality,” said Russ Tooley of Centerville Citizens for Air, River, and Environmental Solutions (CARES), in a statement announcing the citizen’s memorandum. “DNR should instead focus on better enforcement at the factory farms we already have, to prevent even more pollution of our waters.”
From these general permits, one of the issues the groups specifically cite is the allowance of excessive nutrient runoff. This is a known culprit in creating excess plant growth in the water, throwing off the habitat’s natural balance.
“Nutrient management plans (NMPs) under the general permit would continue the practice of allowing CAFOs to apply 15% more nutrients than actual crop yield averages,” stated Edie Ehlert in a letter to Gordon Stevenson of the DNR Bureau of Watershed Management. Ehlert is a member of the Crawford Stewardship Program, a group actively fighting CAFO development in Crawford County. “This practice defies both science and common sense, and virtually guarantees excess nutrients will find their way into surface and ground water over time.”
These are the issues that have brought the residents together to participate in the water testing training session. The audience is attentive while the monitoring steps are described, knowing that soon it will be there turn to gather data.
Turbidity is the next measurement to be taken, which involves taking a sample of the water in a long tube and determining how much water the tube can hold before the bottom is no longer visible from the top of the water level.
“That’s a good indication of sediment that’s in the water,” said Grainger, “a good indication of things that are in the water that make it unclear. And that can have an impact on habitat.”
The final measurement to be collected is stream flow, or how fast the water is moving through the stream or river. The process can prove a bit awkward, but is important in understanding a waterway’s overall health. Grainger notes that this often fun for her, as it involves timing the movement of a tennis ball as it moves from one point of a stream to a marker 20 feet away.
“You’re taking the cross section, how wide it is, how deep it is, and then you’re going to figure out how fast the water is flowing, and that is going to come together to be a calculation for the volume of water that is coming through the stream at that time.”
Having a calculation of water flow helps to understand how the amount of potential contaminants could be in the water, based upon the overall volume of water moving through the region. This is the water that the residents drink from, and that allows so many crops to be sustainable.
As the state government continues to hear statements about the future regulations of the agricultural industry, the concerned citizens who have gathered for this water monitoring training represent the front lines of the state’s protection. There is no guarantee that their efforts to change the current system will be fulfilled, a fact of which they are acutely aware. In the meantime, this water monitoring training session is scientific observation meeting activism, perhaps the best hope for the region’s future.
Perhaps most importantly, it is an opportunity to come together and share their concerns for the health of their lands.