By Lee Luft

It is not an exaggeration to say that Kewaunee County enjoys one of the most enviable locations on earth! Our place right on the shore of Lake Michigan, and by extension one-fifth of the world’s fresh water, is by any standard most fortunate. But there is more. We enjoy a landscape filled with plentiful streams, rivers, lakes, forestlands, fertile croplands, hills, and valleys.

Lee Luft

Truly, Kewaunee County has been blessed. However, it is also true that over time we have taken our privileged place on earth for granted. Older residents remark about the deterioration of what were once Class A cold-water rivers where prize trout were common. Beaches that once beckoned residents and visitors alike became clogged with algae and sometimes had to be closed due to high bacteria counts. Multiple DNR-sponsored studies confirmed more than one-quarter of our private wells were indeed contaminated with bacteria and/or unsafe levels of nitrates.

Like it or not, our small community of Kewaunee County, Wisconsin was featured in statewide and even national news media that focused on the deterioration of one of our most valuable resources, clean water.

But this is not a story about water contamination. This is a good news story brought about by an even more valuable resource in Kewaunee County, its people!

It was Kewaunee County’s people, everyday citizens, who stepped forward to alert our community to the extent of our water problems. It was Kewaunee County’s residents who conducted surface water testing in our rivers and paid for the private analysis of those tests when they were told, “there wasn’t adequate data to support any DNR action.”

It was our county’s citizens who left their homes in the pre-dawn darkness to drive to Madison to meet, time and again, with legislators and state officials to plead for help. It was Kewaunee County’s residents who publically sought action from our county board, our DNR, our Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and our U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Phone calls and letter writing to local, state, and federal officials became routine for caring residents.

Year after year, a tenacious commitment of time, money, and effort from a tireless core of citizens proved to be the catalyst that brought about the good news we can all share today.

Kewaunee County was once seen throughout Wisconsin as ground zero for the fight against water contamination. Kewaunee County was the example of how precious water resources can be harmed when large volumes of nutrients (manure, fertilizer, etc.) are concentrated on lands with shallow soils and fractured bedrock.

Newspaper, TV, and Radio reports documenting the risks of on-going contamination helped energize concerned citizens in every area of our state. Residents of other counties began to see what had happened in Kewaunee County as a cautionary tale and implored their officials to take notice in order to avoid an outcome similar to that in Kewaunee County.

Now, however, the tide has turned and Kewaunee County has become a model for how a community came together to respond to environmental concerns. Once again, Kewaunee County’s citizens stepped forward. An overwhelming number of Kewaunee County voters (83 percent to 17 percent) approved a first-in-Wisconsin ordinance banning the land application of nutrients over shallow soils from Jan. 1 to April 15. This awe-inspiring voter tally gave our Kewaunee County Board the support it needed to continue to examine our water problems.

Kewaunee County farms large and small responded positively and complied with this new ordinance while they worked to improve manure storage and application procedures. An additional staff person was added to our Kewaunee County Land & Water Conservation Department, and budgets were increased to provide some modest additional resources.

A Kewaunee County Groundwater Task Force was formed. When efforts to enlist help from our state agencies stalled, concerned Kewaunee County citizens collaborated with six environmental groups and petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take action to address our water issues.

In response to this petition, the DNR worked with Kewaunee County citizens, local farmers, farm consultants, and other local officials participating on our Kewaunee County Groundwater Task Force to establish multiple DNR-Kewaunee County workgroups. These workgroups were given the responsibility to develop recommendations regarding nutrient applications for areas just like those in parts of Kewaunee County, areas with shallow soils and cracked bedrock.

In the meantime Kewaunee County Conservationist Davina Bonness, Kewaunee County officials and the farm community worked to develop a detailed series of requirements to allow the safe use of manure irrigation where it is practical and suitable. This effort resulted in another first-in-the-state manure irrigation ordinance.

In addition, Kewaunee County officials including County Administrator Scott Feldt and our County Conservationist, proposed and implemented detailed new manure application reporting requirements with enhanced accountability. The county board launched a successful resolution seeking new aquatic life testing on our East Twin River and adjoining waterways.

The Kewaunee and Door county farm community stepped forward and formed Peninsula Pride Farms in an effort to share best practices to enhance soil health while reducing ground and surface water impacts. State Rep. Joel Kitchens worked with state officials to extend proposed waterway testing in Sheboygan and Manitowoc counties to Door and Kewaunee counties. The results of these Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) tests will allow the state and Federal agencies to set new limits on the point and non-point sources of effluents and sediments that can enter a waterway. These TMDL studies are the first step in helping to restore a healthy aquatic life to our precious surface waters.

And now, after more than two years of study, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service announced a multimillion-dollar commitment to aid farmers in Kewaunee County with cost-sharing that will help them improve the critical protections of our waterways. Farms can now qualify for aid to implement and improve environmentally friendly farming practices such as increased setbacks and vegetative strips near to our rivers, streams, creeks, and lakes.

Today, Kewaunee County can rightfully claim to be a leader (if not THE leader) among Wisconsin’s counties in recognizing and more importantly responding to the significant threats impacting our ground and surface water. There is still much more to be done.

We will need Peninsula Pride Farms and farmers at large to make the changes in farming practices that will reduce their impacts on our land and water while improving soil retention and soil health; a real win-win.

We will need to work together to take on the challenges already identified in the DNR’s Aquatic Life Study of the East Twin River system and we will need to respond proactively to the findings of the U.S.D.A. Natural Resources Conservation Service investigation of Kewaunee County.

We will need to implement the changes necessary when the state’s TMDL studies are complete and we will need effective and on-going ground and surface water testing to measure our progress and make course corrections as necessary.

Still, I can’t help but be very proud of the efforts of so many in our community, who proved once again, that our citizens are truly our most precious resource.

Lee Luft is a Kewaunee County Board Supervisor and secretary of the Kewaunee County Land & Water Conservation Committee. This is an opinion column and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Kewaunee County Comet.