Task force hearing highlights connection between fertilizing practices and groundwater contamination

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STEVENS POINT, Wis. (WSAW) -- The connection between crop fertilizing practices and contaminated groundwater was one of the issues highlighted at a public hearing for the Speaker’s Water Quality Task Force in Stevens Point on Wednesday.

“The farmers are part of this solution—probably the major part of this solution,” Wood County land conservationist Shane Wucherpfennig noted.

Water quality in Wisconsin has become a signature political issue under the Evers administration, the need for which has been underscored after 47% of drinking wells in Nelsonville in Portage County testing high for nitrates.

“Nitrate contamination is significant,” Democratic state representative and task force vice-chair Katrina Shankland noted. “It’s a land issue, and it’s a health issue. Women who are pregnant or who want to be, and small children and infants are most susceptible to nitrate and drinking nitrates.”

“This is a problem that transcends party lines,” Republican state senator Patrick Testin said. “This is an issue that we all have to come together on and work on…to try and find some long-term solutions that balance the needs of industry as well as private homeowners here in the state of Wisconsin.”

Experts presenting at the hearing argued that farmers need incentives to help embrace nutrient management plans (NMPs), because it’s risky for their crop yields in an already-poor economic farming climate to cut back or change their fertilizing practices.

“Farmers can’t take the risks on their own; they can’t afford to,” Wucherpfennig said.

NMPs, recommended by the Department of Agricultural, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP), are essentially the regulation of fertilizer to both meet crop nutrient needs while “reducing the potential for them to run off fields to lake, streams and groundwater,” according to the DATCP website.

Because there’s already a lot of risk to crops in today’s economic climate, it’s difficult to get buy-in from farmers to go the extra step of using NMPs to manage the chemicals and pesticides being pumped into the soil that run off the fields and into nearby lakes and streams. Many farmers in Portage County and other areas in north central Wisconsin don’t use them, Portage County water resource specialist Jen McNelly pointed out--and that can be for a variety of reasons.

It’s a problem that the Farmers of Mill Creek Producer Led Group and Wood County Land Conservation argue can be addressed through better support and funding for farmer-led watershed groups, which can study conservation and groundwater solutions at low risk to other farmers.

“The greatest thing is we get special money earmarked for innovative new practices to try things with really no risk behind it,” Wucherpfennig explained, referring to research groups like the Farmers of Mill Creek Producer Led Group. “As they start to make this transition from a conventional system to a new management schedule with covers on the ground, they really start to see the importance, they start to see the improvements in their soil, their water quality, they start to see the natural yield increases without added fertilizers.”

But the recommended NMPs themselves are only as good as their application, Wucherpfennig said. “If you don’t follow a nutrition management program and use it to its highest potential, it’s really not going to do you any good, and it’s certainly not going to prevent nitrate from migrating south into groundwater.”

“We don’t want the nutrients leaving our land; we don’t want the soil leaving our land,” noted John Eron, lead farmer in the Farmers of Mill Creek group. Keeping that soil and the nutrients on the land is best addressed through best conservation practices, Eron and Wucherpfennig noted in their presentation.

“I think [farmers] play a big role,” Testin added. “With that comes some increased challenges...trying to find that right balance to ensure proper yields while at the same time making sure that what we put onto our fields doesn’t run off into the water and down into our groundwater tables.”

“What we need to do is work together across the aisle to prevent contamination from happening, clean up the current contamination, and make sure that everyone has access to clean drinking water,” Shankland said.