Under changes to a water quality permit, a large dairy farm in northeastern Wisconsin — which faced almost a decade of litigation over its proposal to expand — could nearly double its herd in an area vulnerable to groundwater pollution.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is proposing a maximum of 21,450 animal units, or roughly the equivalent of 15,000 cows, for Kinnard Farms in Kewaunee County.
The DNR is also proposing offsite groundwater monitoring as part of permit modifications. The permit regulates any releases to groundwater, as well as waters flowing to Casco Creek within the Kewaunee River Watershed.
The changes are tied to a Wisconsin Supreme Court decision last year that found regulators can require operating conditions on so-called factory farms, also known as concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs.
Kinnard Farms isn’t proposing to expand now, according to the agency, emphasizing the changes are tied to the July court ruling. The operation has around 8,000 cows that are expected to produce more than 103 million gallons of manure this year.
The DNR is accepting written comments on the permit conditions until Jan. 25.
Environmental advocates and residents argue the cap proposed by regulators doesn’t safeguard water quality.
"They are missing the opportunity to develop that limit as a meaningful way to address the water contamination crisis in Kewaunee County," Tony Wilkin Gibart, executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates, said.
Residents in Kewaunee County have struggled with drinking water contamination of private wells from agriculture for years. The region is susceptible to pollution from manure runoff due to thin soils and fractured bedrock that allow contamination to more easily seep into groundwater.
In July, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled the DNR had authority to impose permit conditions on Kinnard Farms to protect water quality as part of a case that challenged a permit issued by the DNR. The decision stemmed from a 2012 request by the farm to add a second site and more than 3,000 dairy cows, almost doubling the size of its operation at the time. Nearby residents challenged the permit, setting off years of litigation.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling upheld a 2014 decision by an administrative law judge that ordered the DNR to require a limit on animals for Kinnard Farms in addition to offsite groundwater monitoring, citing "a crisis with respect to groundwater quality in the area."
Since then, the DNR reissued the farm's water quality permit in 2018, which was also challenged by residents. The agency reached a settlement with the farm that required changes to the permit if the state Supreme Court affirmed the DNR’s authority to require a cap and offsite monitoring.
Chris Clayton, agricultural runoff section chief for the DNR, said the agency asked Kinnard Farms to provide a projected maximum number of animal units as part of permit modifications.
"They provided information requesting 21,450 animal units," Clayton said.
If Kinnard Farms were to expand, Clayton noted the operation would be required to demonstrate it has enough land to apply manure and wastewater, as well as meet 180-day storage requirements.
Even without future expansion, a DNR fact sheet shows groundwater monitoring data at Kinnard Farms has found "persistent exceedances of groundwater quality standards for nitrate and bacteria." Sampling of monitoring wells in production areas have shown nitrate concentrations of more than 20 milligrams per liter — double the state’s health and groundwater standards of 10 milligrams per liter.
Nitrates are the state’s most widespread contaminant and have been associated with birth defects, thyroid disease and colon cancer. Research has shown around 10 percent of the state’s 800,000 private wells exceed federal health standards for nitrates.
Around 90 percent of nitrogen in groundwater can be traced back to agriculture.
Kinnard Farms must submit a groundwater monitoring plan for fields receiving manure that will be reviewed by the DNR for approval under the permit modifications, regardless of any future expansion. Contaminated groundwater above the production area indicates "landspreading as a potential source" of pollution. Click here to see more...