LANCASTER — More than 100 people packed the Youth and Ag Building on the Grant County Fairground May 8 for a public hearing of the Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality; it was the third hearing of the committee but the first one away from the Capitol in Madison and the first hearing where members of the public could also testify to the topic in front of lawmakers from around the state.

“We have a great turnout, and it’s what we wanted,” said Rep. Todd Novak, who also serves as chairman of the task force.

Before public testimony began later that afternoon, Novak had invited members from various organizations to speak before the committee and the public to provide information on the continuing Southwest Wisconsin Groundwater and Geology Study, also known as SWIGG; the work of farmer-led Lafayette Ag Stewardship Alliance and Wisconsin Pork Producers; and water research being conducted at UW-Platteville Pioneer Farm and Discovery Farms.

Representing SWIGG, a well contamination study currently underway in Grant, Iowa and Lafayette counties in southwest Wisconsin, were Lynda Schweikert, administrator of the Grant County Conservation, Sanitation and Zoning Department; Ken Bradbury, director of Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey; Joel Stokdyk, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey; Terry Loeffelholz, manager of the Lafayette County Land Conservation/Planning and Zoning Department; and Katie Abbott, Iowa County conservationist.

The SWIGG study is important as it is credited in playing a small role in the formation of the Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality in early 2019.

The SWIGG study began in November 2018 with the randomized sampling of 301 private wells in the three counties; homeowners collected the samples, which were tested for total coliform, E.coli and nitrates, and results were shared with homeowners who participated in that first sampling by December.

A second randomized round of testing was recently completed in April 2019. Laboratory analysis and data review are in progress for this second round of testing. Just as was done in the first round of sampling, wells that tested positive for the above listed contaminants will undergo secondary testing to determine fecal sources of the contamination.

While potential fecal sources like septic systems, septage-applied fields and livestock have been identified, Stokdyk will also look into other factors of contamination, including well characteristics, rainfall amounts and geology.

“Samples from each individual county will be able to represent the entire three-county region and that’s because the geology is similar across all three counties and because we randomly selected wells to be sampled in a way that represents all three counties,” Stokdyk said. “The results and conclusions and hopefully solutions we can draw from the entire data set can help inform what’s going on in each individual county. And that really speaks to the power of conducting a well-designed scientific study like this.”

While a study into well contamination may seem direly needed, Loeffelholz explained how the three counties struggled, at times, to fund the project, which has an estimated price tag of $203,000. Grant County found they had some available funding while Iowa County chose to work it into their 2019 and 2020 budgets, he said. Lafayette County was also able to work it into their normal budget process, but also received funds from the Lafayette Ag Stewardship Alliance and private donations.

How much each county paid for the study was determined by the county’s populations, with Grant paying 56 percent of the project cost, Iowa 26 percent and Lafayette 18 percent.

Abbott stated she was grateful the study received a bump in state funding from Gov. Tony Evers, but continues to worry about funding going forward.

“Funding is always going to be a big issue,” she said. “These problems are big and complex and it’s going to need some significant investment if we’re going to make progress on this.”

Having good data from the SWIGG study is important and having it should help her department know where to best place their limited funding, time and resources. However, she recognizes there won’t be a quick fix — solutions will take time and multiple approaches. She called for stakeholder collaboration, problem-solving, buy-in and accountability and suggested lawmakers may need to look at agricultural policy and economics as part of the big picture.

While representatives of SWIGG remain cautious until the study is completed, they have discussed possible solutions depending on the results. If contamination is correlated to well design, they foresee well code updates and region-specific standards being explored, as well as a bigger investment in well testing and inspection programs; if the contamination is correlated to septic systems, they foresee needed upgrades to old septic systems and further analysis of septic system standards. If the contamination is correlated to livestock, alternate manure handling methods and technology should be explored; nitrogen recommendations for groundwater protection may also need to be developed if the contamination is correlated with agricultural uses.

However, all of these possible solutions would require support and funding from the state and lawmakers alike.

“Collaboration is key,” said Jim Winn, president of the Lafayette Ag Stewardship Alliance, also known as LASA. “I envision a community where farmers and stakeholders work together on environmental actions.”

LASA is committed to stewardship of the county’s natural resources, which includes working to protect and improve surface water and groundwater. They also have a vision of working together with others on environmental issues, which led them to donate $7,000 to Lafayette County to aid in funding the SWIGG study.

“We feel it’s important to support the research financially,” Winn said. “Fewer and fewer people are connected to agriculture and we want to bridge that gap.”

“This water study is a community event,” he added. “We’re all responsible and we all got stake in the game ... whether you farm or not, we all want clean water. And farmers understand this.”

“We all care about the water we drink,” said A.V. Roth, a Wisconsin Pork Association board member, National Pork Producers Association president-elect and a fifth-generation Wisconsin pork producer. “There isn’t one producer I’ve talked to that doesn’t care about the environment.”

“I think it’s very important to give agriculture an opportunity to come to the table and help make the decisions,” said Bob Uphoff, past WPA president, Yahara Pride Farms board member and a Wisconsin pork producer.

He argued that while some news media outlets continuously place blame on farmers, farmers are in fact doing quite a lot to protect their land and resources, as evidenced through the data being collected from the farms participating in Yahara Pride Farms, a farmer-led watershed group in Dane County.

“Farmers are hearing the message out here, and I think it’s time we really recognize the role that farmers play; we’re not the problems out here, we’re the solutions,” Uphoff said. “I think it’s very important as we go forward, whether it’s with groundwater or surface water, if you want improvement in the water quality in Wisconsin, the farmer’s got to be at the table and we’ve got to be the leaders.”

Farmers and citizens alike are invited to attend upcoming public hearings around the state, with dates and times of those hearings yet to be announced. Comments may also be submitted online at https://legis.wisconsin.gov/2019/committees/assembly/STF-WQ/, where the task force will update the public on its activities and progress.