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Thaw threatens water supplies with manure runoff

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Lee Bergquist/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
March 31, 2014

With warmer weather finally on the way, state officials are warning farmers and the public that there is a potentially high risk across most of Wisconsin for manure to pollute groundwater, streams, rivers and lakes.

Following the highest number of manure spills in seven years in 2013, this year's threat is due to melting snow and rainfall that could send soil and animal waste into streams.

Under the right conditions, manure also could soak into aquifers, from which drinking water is drawn.

Manure, an important source of fertilizer, contains bacteria, phosphorus and nitrogen, which can enrich soil.

But if misapplied, it can pollute waterways and groundwater.

So far, the seemingly endless winter has meant snow has melted gradually, which has kept manure runoff problems to a minimum, according to officials at the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

The chief exception has been tainted private wells in a subdivision of Brownsville in northern Dodge County that state officials are investigating.

Initial tests show high levels of fecal coliform and E. coli, which could be caused by human or animal waste. The DNR is advising people living in about a dozen homes not to drink the water.

With warmer temperatures and rain predicted over the next week, conditions could change quickly, officials say.

The state agriculture department's runoff risk advisory forecast is currently listed as "high" across most of Wisconsin.

The system lets farmers and others check individual watersheds and judge the risk of spreading, based on soil moisture, snowpack, temperature, the forecast for rain and other factors.

The online system is part of a series of initiatives in the aftermath of a surge in manure spills in 2004 and 2005.

A total of 52 manure spills were documented statewide between July 1, 2004, and June 30, 2005, according to the DNR.

This month, the DNR and agriculture department spent more than $9,000 airing radio spots, warning farmers about proper spreading practices.

The Journal Sentinel reported in December that farmers had the highest number of spills in 2013 in a seven-year period.

Livestock operations spilled more than 1 million gallons of manure last year, which is less than 1% of manure produced by dairy cattle in Wisconsin.

The data between 2007 and 2013 showed no clear trend, but state officials say there is growing awarenessof proper manure handling.

Management and engineering issues can be a source of the problem, as evidenced last week when the DNR issued two notices of violation against a publicly financed manure digester in Dane County for environmental problems starting in 2012. The most recent spill occurred on March 12.

Still, weather is a major factor.

"Conditions are worse this year than last year," said Andrew Craig, a nutrient management specialist for the DNR.

One factor that could compound any problems: Wisconsin's largest dairy farms, with 700 or more cows, will soon be heading into the fields to start spreading.

Known as CAFOs, or concentrated animal feeding operations, the farms are prohibited from spreading manure in February and March, except in emergencies.

Some are reaching the maximum capacity of their pits and must start emptying them soon.

"This is go-like-hell time, that's just the way it is, " said David Eisentraut, of Eisentraut Ag Services, a Sheboygan County company that pumps manure from pits and spreads it on fields.

"Winter's running a little late, so everyone is very tight on storage."

Eisentraut and others who handle much of the spreading for large farms are days away from a frenzied period, moving farm to farm, draining pits and working the manure into the soil.

The work has to be done before planting season.

Unlike CAFOs, smaller farms aren't required to follow plans that spell out how manure is applied to individual fields.

But some smaller farms do. Today, 26% of all cropland is covered by such plans, a figure that is rising steadily.

Eisentraut and his crew will handle up to 60 million gallons of manure over a six-week period.

"We can't just pour it on-we're going to have to be on our game," he said.

Lynn Utesch, a small-scale beef farmer in Kewaunee County and a critic of CAFOs, believes large farms are growing too quickly, outgrowing their ability to store manure.

Too many farms are asking for emergency approval to spread manure on frozen ground, "where it's going to end up right in our streams," he said.

Casey Langan, executive director of public relations for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, agreed farmers have to be vigilant in the spring.

"Yes, it rains in the spring, and farmers have to be careful," Langan said. "But by and large, the system works."



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