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Protecting Portage County Drinking Water from Agricultural Pollution

Portage County residents represented by MEA challenged a wastewater discharge permit issued to Gordondale Farms because the permit did not do enough to protect local drinking water. Our legal challenge led to a permit modification that required Gordondale to install groundwater monitoring wells near fields where the farm spreads large amounts of manure. 

Case Summary

In 2020, a wastewater permit for Gordondale Farms became the subject of a legal challenge because it did not do enough to protect local drinking water. The challenge was brought by a group of local residents represented by Midwest Environmental Advocates (MEA). Clean Wisconsin also challenged the permit.

n April 2022, DNR proposed modifying the permit to include new groundwater monitoring requirements. Community members who attended a public hearing on the draft permit in May testified by a 10-to-1 margin in favor of DNR’s proposed changes. Those changes were incorporated into the final permit.

Gordondale’s permit is the third CAFO permit to incorporate conditions and authority outlined in a landmark Supreme Court decision last year. The decision affirmed the DNR’s authority to use commonsense permit conditions such as groundwater monitoring and limits on herd size to address nitrate contamination and other threats to water quality.

Groundwater in the area around Gordondale Farms is especially vulnerable to nitrate pollution due to the area’s sandy soils. In 2018, the Portage County Health Department tested private drinking water wells in Nelsonville and found that almost half were contaminated with high levels of nitrates. Nitrate is the most widespread contaminant in Wisconsin, and approximately 90 percent of nitrate in groundwater can be traced back to agriculture.

The ongoing water quality crisis has led local residents to call for increased accountability and oversight of large livestock operations like Gordondale Farms. Despite opposition from Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and other lobbyists for industrial agriculture, Nelsonville residents have refused to back down and have worked for four years to counter misinformation and push back on attempts to point the finger elsewhere.

We are pleased that the DNR has demonstrated its commitment to protecting the health of Lisa and her neighbors by requiring groundwater monitoring. The new permit isn’t perfect, but it is a step in the right direction, and it will help ensure the safety of Nelsonville’s drinking water.

Katy Bailey

Portage County

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