Farms, Fertilizer, and the Fight for Clean Water

Corn farm

This episode about nitrate pollution in Wisconsin’s Central Sands region is the fifth piece in the series Ground Truths: Stories from Wisconsin’s Frontlines of Environmental Action. This six-episode podcast series highlights environmental justice issues across the diverse communities and landscapes of Wisconsin, from Milwaukee to the Northwoods. The series is supported in part by a grant from Wisconsin Humanities, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Series editors: Carly Griffith (lead), Clare Sullivan (lead), Ben Iuliano, Justyn Huckleberry, Marisa Lanker, and Juniper Lewis.

Map of Wisconsin with counties outlined in gray and Portage County, a large site of nitrate pollution, highlighted in green.
Wisconsin state map. Portage County is highlighted in green. Map design by Carly Griffith.

When you picture the agricultural landscapes of America’s Dairyland, you may imagine rolling hills dotted with red barns, gently swaying corn fields, and grazing cattle. Many people are drawn to the rural beauty and sense of place that such landscapes offer. But living alongside agriculture—especially an agriculture that’s been expanding in scale and intensity in recent decades—also presents challenges.

Nitrate pollution is a problem that plagues many rural communities, especially those that rely on groundwater from wells as their main source of drinking water. In this podcast, we explore nitrate groundwater contamination from industrial agriculture in the Central Sands of Wisconsin. In Nelsonville, a small village of about 150 people in Portage County, Wisconsin, one particular farm has come under scrutiny: Gordondale Farms, a concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO, that houses about 2,500 dairy cows. To learn more about nitrate pollution and its public health consequences, we speak to Lisa Anderson, Dr. George Kraft, and Adam Voskuil.

Stream or download our conversation here.

Interview Highlights

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Carly Griffith: I spoke to Dr. George Kraft, emeritus professor of Water Resources at UWStevens Point and state-certified hydrologist, about the basic mechanics of nitrate pollution—how it works and how it spreads across the landscape.

George Kraft: Let’s start with groundwater: groundwater is the water under the earth’s surface that we pump from wells. It is water that comes from local precipitation, so when it rains, some of the rainfall runs off, but the bulk of it soaks into the ground. Plants use and send some through their roots back up into the atmosphere, and a little bit, maybe 10 inches or so, of the annual precipitation seeps past the plant roots and gets to groundwater. Once that water is in what we call an aquifer, that geology that holds the groundwater, it flows.

In Portage County, about 95 percent of the nitrate in groundwater comes from agriculture.

Where the nitrate comes from is that the water percolating through the soil can pick up contaminants—it dissolves stuff and brings it down to the groundwater with it. Nitrate is a contaminant. It’s predominantly from agricultural inputs but can also be from septic systems and in lawn fertilizers, and the precipitation going, say, through a farm field or through a septic drain field, picks up that nitrate, brings it to the groundwater, and transports that nitrate with the groundwater to wherever it’s going. So nitrate is a chemical form of nitrogen, it’s got a nitrogen atom and three oxygen atoms and a negative charge, which makes it really slippery in the soil. It’s something plants could use. But when it’s there in excess, it bypasses the plants and becomes a groundwater contaminant.

Ben Iuliano: Lisa Anderson, a resident of Nelsonville, Wisconsin, keeps up with the latest research on what the health consequences of all that excess nitrogen are for the people who ingest it. 

Lisa Anderson: The health consequence that everybody thinks of with nitrates is this “blue baby syndrome.” But that’s actually very rare now because the state health department has been good at getting the message out about pregnant women not drinking water with high nitrates. But aside from that, it’s associated with thyroid diseases, cancers, and neural tube disorders like spina bifida. 

With bladder cancer, your risk goes up almost three times with nitrate levels at as low as 2.5 parts per million for 20 years. It goes up one-and-a-half times at nitrate levels of about five parts per million for as little as four years. So people really need to be aware of that risk over a short amount of time at what people consider a safe limit. Ten parts per million is the EPA limit, so these are amounts that are much below that EPA standard. And I’m concerned that people aren’t getting the message. The EPA limit was set in 1962, because of the blue baby syndrome, and it has not been revisited. And it should.

It does seem like we have a high incidence of various cancers and thyroid disease in Nelsonville. I myself got a thyroid disease four years after we moved here. Not long ago, I met a midwife from this area, and she said that it was common knowledge in her practice that Nelsonville had five times the miscarriage rate as surrounding areas. It’s hard to prove this stuff without having a study. But we know the risk is there. And we know that disease is there.

Rows of planted corn, a major source of nitrate pollution. Photo by Meredith Petrick, 2019.

Ben Iuliano: As George Kraft mentioned, nitrate can come from a range of sources including leaky septic systems and lawn fertilizers. But in rural landscapes, the vast majority of nitrate comes from agricultural land management practices.

George Kraft: The nitrate from agriculture comes from three different places: it comes from chemical fertilizer, it comes from manure, and it comes from fixed nitrogen on, say, alfalfa plants and other legumes. Again, nitrogen is a central nutrient for plants, but it’s when all of it doesn’t get absorbed by plant roots that we’ve got a problem. It gets into the groundwater and becomes a contaminant, where it has health and ecological effects.

In Portage County, about 95 percent of the nitrate in groundwater comes from agriculture. And almost all the wells that have nitrate in them at levels over the drinking water standard are from agricultural sources. The remainder are from septic systems. And, you know, when we have septic systems on small lots, say half-acre, quarter-acre, things like that, we’re setting ourselves up for too much nitrate to get to groundwater. But if we get to larger, you know, one-acre, two-acre, five-acre lots, it’s really no longer a hazard.

Ben Iuliano: In Portage County, most nitrate pollution comes from chemical fertilizer on row crops used for animal feed. All of those animals require lots of nitrogen-hungry crops, and produce lots of manure.

Lisa Anderson: What we are asking for is different land management practices on the fields that impact our wells. There are fields in the village’s recharge zone that have had continuous corn, and lots of nitrogen and irrigation, which allows them to use even more nitrogen. What we want is for water quality to be a requirement of decisions about what practices to use and how much nitrogen to use, and right now it’s not. The amount of nitrogen is determined by UW recommendations that were made some time ago. Those recommendations are based on profitability for the farm and do not consider water quality at all. That needs to change. You just absolutely should not be able to contaminate people’s drinking water.  

Carly Griffith: Even if farmers are accurately reporting their nitrogen application rates and following university recommendations, George Kraft points out that those recommended rates are themselves influenced by agribusiness.

A pile of large, white bags containing nitrate fertilizer
Bags of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Photo by user Cjp24 on Wikimedia Commons, 2016.

George Kraft: The ag researchers, when there’s a new hybrid, a new crop, whatever comes along, they want to know, “What is the the best rate to fertilize at?” The best rate for agronomic purposes is “How much do you put on to maximize your profit?” and after that point, the extra fertilizer is costing you more than the extra yield you’re getting out. And so you can imagine there’ll be a plot some place, like an experimental farm. And they’ll divide this up into little squares and put 20 pounds per acre, and maybe 50 and 100 and 200 and 300, and they make themselves a curve, say “Well, right, there is where we’re going to get the maximum profit.” That becomes the university recommendation, and that’s pretty much what the DNR is building into their permit system. And, really, when researchers are making these curves (and this goes back a long time), they’ve never worried about, “Well, what happens to the extra nitrogen?” Because the more you put on, the less efficient the plants are at picking up that nitrogen.

Ag researchers must have noticed this, but they never worried about the fate of the nitrogen that wasn’t getting sucked up by plants. Back in my day at the soils department, the researcher said, “Well, what happens to that nitrogen is somebody else’s problem. My problem is to help farmers make the biggest profit.” It wasn’t very integrated thinking. But that thinking persists to this day with ag researchers. They get paid by the people of Wisconsin to serve all the people of Wisconsin, but some of them are more or less captured by industry.

Ben Iuliano: Industry pressures for more input-intensive production of crop monocultures, shortening or elimination of crop rotations, larger herd and field sizes, and lack of support for alternative practices like managed grazing all contribute to agricultural pollution problems. These are large, structural issues that don’t have easy solutions. In the short term, regulation and monitoring are the tools at the disposal of communities demanding clean drinking water. The Nelsonville efforts began in 2018, and in 2020 they reached out to Midwest Environmental Advocates (MEA), a nonprofit environmental law center, for their expertise. I asked Lisa about the decision to work with the organization.

Lisa Anderson: When the CAFO near us was up for renewal of this permit, we all went to a public hearing, and we were trying to get the DNR to put monitoring wells at the farm. As of April 2020, they were still going to require monitoring wells—I know this because I’ve seen emails behind the scenes. But then the farmer talked to them and was hoping to negotiate, saying that he was afraid this would put them out of business. And so they had a hydrogeologist come out and they wrote up a final determination against requiring monitoring wells at the time. MEA got involved at that point (that’s September of 2020) and filed the petition. There are five of us that are co-petitioners, plus Clean Wisconsin as a co-petitioner, where we are asking the DNR to reconsider their final determination. And we actually want monitoring wells up-gradient and down-gradient of some fields that are in our recharge zone. 

Carly Griffith: Agricultural pollution is notoriously difficult to regulate, but a 2021 decision by the Wisconsin Supreme Court offers a glimmer of hope. To learn more about the shifting legal landscape, I spoke with Adam Voskuil, a staff attorney at Midwest Environmental Advocates (MEA) and co-author of their recent report with the Environmental Working Group about nitrate pollution in Wisconsin.

Adam Voskuil: So the state Supreme Court decision, Clean Wisconsin v. DNR, related to a different CAFO, Kinnard Farms in Kewaunee, and the litigation in that case began in 2012. And that case largely focused on the authorities that the DNR had and what terms they could include in a Wisconsin Pollution Discharge Elimination System (WPDES) permit. Those permits are given to industrial dischargers—basically, people that need to be permitted under the Clean Water Act because they discharge to Waters of the United States, or in Wisconsin’s instance, Waters of the State, which includes groundwater.

And so the case worked its way up from a contested case hearing in front of an administrative law judge through the state courts via appeals processes all the way up to the Supreme Court. And in the spring of 2021, my colleague Andrea Gelatt engaged in oral argument in front of the Supreme Court, noting that the DNR did have the authority under our state laws to include certain terms in those clean water permits. Namely, at least as it related to the Kinnard Farms decision and CAFO, the authority to include groundwater monitoring at landspreading fields—where the CAFO spreads the tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands to millions of gallons of liquid manure and process wastewater—and then also the authority to include an animal unit limit, basically capping the size that a CAFO can grow to. 

A large barn area with a path flanked on either side by many cows crowded behind metal fences
Concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) in Pennsylvania. In Wisconsin, a CAFO generally means a livestock operation with 1000 animal units (based on the weight of the animals). Photo by Lance Cheung for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2011.

The result of that decision wasn’t just focused on Kinnard Farms; it is now being played out in a number of CAFOs around the state, whether it be Pinnacle Dairy or Richfield Dairy or Gordondale in Portage County, where residents, neighbors, people who live in the community have been asking for the DNR to include those permit terms for years. And now that the Supreme Court has affirmed that authority (albeit we’re about a year from that decision), we’re starting to see the implementation of that authority into CAFO permits from around the state.

Carly Griffith: While a final decision from the DNR is still forthcoming at the time of this recording, community members are hopeful. After nearly four years, it seems like all of their efforts navigating the complex state regulatory system are paying off. At the end of my conversation with Adam Voskuil, I asked him to make a pitch for why Wisconsin residents should care about what can seem like a very bureaucratic, slow, drawn-out administrative process.

Adam Voskuil: I think getting up to speed on it and learning where you can make that change is really valuable because agricultural-caused contamination in and around the state, particularly in rural areas that rely on private drinking water, is pervasive. It’s one of the biggest causes of groundwater contamination in the state, particularly nitrate contamination. And if you can advocate for more monitoring, more studies, you can start attributing what activities or what fields are causing this contamination, and that’s when the DNR can take the next step and order changes in that activity itself.

You just absolutely should not be able to contaminate people’s drinking water.

You see something like the fight that happened and is continuing to happen in Kewaunee. And you realize just the ripple effect that it is having across the rest of the state. You know, we saw people in southwest Wisconsin and Crawford County calling for the inclusion of these permit terms. We see in the Central Sands in Nelsonville, for Gordondale Farms, people calling for these terms. It really shows the value of one community taking that step, becoming experts—albeit I’ll say that these communities shouldn’t be forced to become experts on a lot of these decisions. But they do, and the result is some changes in their community and hope for a lot of other communities that are experiencing similar contamination problems. From that, you can start working on the next series of changes. 

Ben Iuliano: I also asked Lisa Anderson for any takeaways she had as someone at the forefront of the efforts in Nelsonville.

Lisa Anderson: You know, I kind of think that it’s been hard to get past this need to be nice. I’m not this person who is in your face, or even likes conflict or anything like that. And, you know, just really realizing that we’ve been playing by the rules working through the system, and we’ve had a lot of ag interests working against us and putting out disinformation. We work really hard on sticking to factual information, but it’s just not getting out there. So, for instance, I started sending emails describing our problems to the entire county board and other interested parties because most of the county board wasn’t even finding out about the issues—the issues weren’t getting out of the ag-controlled committees. That goes against the way I would normally operate. I tried to work with consensus, and I don’t want to hurt anyone, but I’m going outside of my comfort zone, for sure, and trying to get other people involved.

Featured image: Corn farms can be a major source of nitrate pollution. Photo by Julian Schöll, 2018.

Podcast music: “Weatherman” by Wolf Man Summit. Used with permission.

Lisa Anderson is a resident and community advocate in Nelsonville, a small village located in Portage County, Wisconsin. Contact.

Dr. George Kraft is professor emeritus of Water Resources at University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point and a state-certified hydrologist. Website. Contact.

Adam Voskuil is a staff attorney with Midwest Environmental Advocates, a nonprofit environmental law center based in Madison, Wisconsin. Website. Contact.

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