You have to stick your neck out. How can we not?
Kewaunee County is drowning in manure. There are more than 75,000 head of livestock in the county, over triple the number of people living. Dairy animals alone produce nearly one and a half million tons of manure annually.
The manure gets everywhere. It contaminates people's drinking water wells. It runs off farm fields and flows down the rivers to Lake Michigan and, once there, does its job as fertilizer, growing massive, stringy, smelly and even toxic crops of algae. Though they're not allowed to do so yet, farmers want to spray manure through big irrigation sprinklers. Their non-farming neighbors think it's best not to hang their laundry outside on the days farmers irrigate with cow manure.
In spring, people turn on their taps and see their water running brown. Manure-laden snow or rain flows through cracks in the ground. With no crops to take up the water or the manure, this contaminated water runs right to the aquifer – the source of people's drinking water. Homeowners are forced to drill deeper wells, but sometimes even that doesn't protect them.
About a third of 560 wells tested in Kewaunee County in 2014 show contamination at some level by farm runoff. Coliform bacteria, nitrates and even salmonella are being discovered in people's drinking water. Homeowners can't and won't drink contaminated water; some fear even bathing in it.
Citizens in Kewaukee County are angry. This problem has been well documented for years, yet the dairy industry continues an unrelenting march toward bigger farms, more cows and more manure.
A state task force concluded in 2006 that Kewaunee County soils and the bedrock underneath it made the drinking water supply very vulnerable to contamination. The dairy industry challenged the task force's findings, and nothing was done. Legislation was proposed in 2010, but the dairy industry immediately opposed it, claiming (falsely) that the people calling for clean water and more responsible farming practices wanted to ban manure spreading altogether, and therefore ban dairy farming.
It's not just groundwater being contaminated by manure. The city of Algoma, nestled on the shore of Lake Michigan, has – or had – a popular swimming beach. By July most years, the runoff from farms has so fouled Lake Michigan that thick, green waves of algae wash up on Algoma's beach, accompanied by a putrid smell. On hot days in Algoma, the beach is devoid of bathers.
In a testament to the power of citizens advocating for clean water, the Kewaunee County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously for an ordinance limiting the timing and location of manure spreading on lands sensitive to groundwater contamination. (Each of the county's townships must approve it separately.) That county will need to do much more to protect is aquifers and Lake Michigan, but the ordinance was a very important first step.