In Kewaunee County, Wisconsin, there are more cows than people. Some of those cows belong to Lynn and Nancy Utesch.
Lynn and Nancy moved to Town of Pierce in Kewaunee County in 2004, acquiring 150 acres to pursue their grass-fed beef operation. When they moved to the county they were concerned with concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), but at that time there were only a few permitted operations in their area. They believed the tourism sector and the proximity to Lake Michigan offered protection against the proliferation of large farms in the county.
Shortly after the Utesh family moved to Kewaunee County, the six-month old daughter of Scott and Judy Treml was rushed to intensive care due to e-coli poisoning from their homestead’s well water. The well contamination from winter manure spreading and associated runoff into the porous, Karst soil of the area made headlines. But while the Treml incident was of great concern to local residents, the news didn’t stop a surge of expansions of CAFOs throughout the county.
“Some of the problems we can see,” said Nancy. “We only have to look at the East Twin River to know how much the water has degraded. In the 90s, it was the nicest stream in the county for trout fishing. Now the trout are gone. You can see signs for closed beaches on the shores of Lake Michigan, but those posted DNR warnings don’t extend to drinking water.”
Between 2004 and 2014, the Center for Watershed Science and Education at the University of Wisconsin -- Stevens Point collected water quality data from wells in Kewaunee County. Thirty percent of the water from tested wells was unsafe to drink, with high levels of nitrates, bacteria or both. Similar results have been collected by the DNR and the Kewaunee County Land and Conservation Department that also shows well water contamination for families who live near fields where livestock facilities spread manure.
“Ag lobbyists in Wisconsin are working hard to discredit these studies,” said Lynn. “But while you can’t make people test their water – and some people don’t want to know what’s in their drinking water – the cause for alarm here is very real. It’s going to take action from the EPA to connect the DNR’s inability to keep manure spreading in check to what needs to be done to put the health of people first.”
Witnessing the degradation of the water quality of local rivers and streams—and the high contamination rate of tested wells in Kewaunee County spurred the Utesch family into advocacy. Lynn and Nancy worked with fellow residents James Olson and Dr. William Iwen to establish Kewaunee Citizens Advocating Responsible Environmental Stewardship (Kewaunee CARES) in 2011 for concerned residents to have a voice in the local and statewide debate over the need for greater water protection and sustainable farming. The group does water testing in the county including the three major rivers: the Kewaunee, East Twin and Ahnapee, all of which now appear on the impaired waters list.
But even though concerned county residents can find support through the citizen action group, taking on the risks and costs of a lawsuit against the state government over pollution problems demands more than most people are willing to take on.
“We find that it’s very difficult to find a group of people who have the time, money and willingness to sue the DNR over bad CAFO permits,” said Nancy. “This is a very rural community. We don’t want to be bad neighbors. But we also know that people are beholden to fear. As long as the state courts require a minimum of five people to file a court challenge, an organization like Kewaunee CARES has no way to help people who have polluted drinking water but who can’t bear the personal and financial costs of a lawsuit.”
As an alternative to lawsuits however, citizens are finding other ways to hold the DNR accountable. Lynn and Nancy signed onto a formal petition to the EPA in 2014 to ask the agency to take action under the Safe Drinking Water Act to provide clean drinking water to Kewaunee County families whose wells have unsafe levels of bacteria, nitrates or both. Since then, the DNR has established stakeholder meetings to create a plan to solve the water problems, and as a petitioner, Lynn is a part of those discussions. The dialogue is important, but until the DNR has the staff and funding to bring sources of pollution into compliance with the Clean Water Act, Lynn is afraid the workgoups’ power is too limited.
“I’m glad we’re being heard by the DNR,” said Lynn. “But once pollution gets into the water, it’s difficult and expensive to fix. At the end of the day, there is no way to compromise over clean water. That’s why we need the EPA to get the DNR to correct what’s broken. In my community, and in places all over the state, people are out of options to make the DNR do what needs to be done to protect our water.”
Lynn and Nancy Utesch are beef farmers in Kewaunee County, Wisconsin and are among the founders of Kewaunee Citizens Advocating Responsible Environmental Stewardship, a citizen organization dealing with environmental issues in their community.
They signed the Petition for Corrective Action to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to encourage the State of Wisconsin and its Department of Natural Resources to fully comply with the Clean Water Act.
Photo submitted by Lynn and Nancy Utesch.