DURAND — Pepin County has among the highest estimated percentage in Wisconsin of wells with nitrate levels higher than what is considered safe for regular human consumption, according to the state Department of Natural Resources Groundwater Coordinating Council.

The Pepin County Water Advisory Group was created about three years ago by representatives from UW-Extension, the county’s land conservation, land use planning and health departments and Pepin County residents in an effort to get together and work on ways to bring nitrate levels to the point where county citizens have access to safe drinking water.

“We have each been dealing with nitrate issues in groundwater in different ways, and we decided that we needed to work together and to pull the community into the discussion,” said Mike Travis, agriculture and natural resources educator with UW-Extension in Pepin County. “The idea of the water advisory group is to really dig into what the nitrate issue is in the county and to look at how we can address the issue.”

Nitrate is a water-soluble molecule that forms when ammonia or other nitrogen-rich sources combine with oxygen. Nitrate is the most widespread groundwater contaminant in the state, and nitrate contamination of groundwater is increasing in extent and severity, according to the Groundwater Coordinating Council.

“It’s by no means a local issue. It’s a statewide, it’s a nationwide issue,” Travis said. “We realized here at the county that we need to do something at the county level to begin working on it.”

Where pollution sources are absent, nitrate levels in groundwater are generally below 1 milligram per liter, according to Kevin Masarik, groundwater education specialist with UW-Extension and UW-Stevens Point College of Natural Resources. It is recommended that people avoid long-term consumption of water containing nitrate above 10 milligrams per liter.

“If we’re successful in reducing nitrate losses even a little bit, we might be able to significantly reduce the number of people exposed to water over 10 milligrams per liter,” Masarik said. “I’m optimistic, but I realize there are inherent challenges.”

According to Pepin County Conservationist Chase Cummings, the county’s well-monitoring efforts in 2018 showed 33 percent of wells tested in the town of Durand and 45 percent of wells tested in the town of Lima returned nitrate levels above the safe drinking water standard.

“There’s cause for concern there,” Cummings said. “But we have a lot of landowners in these watersheds who are trying their hand at improving that situation.”

In March 2018, Pepin County adopted a moratorium on expansion and creation of large-scale livestock facilities, which the county defined as having 500 animal units or more. That large-scale livestock moratorium expires at the end of March 2020, and Cummings said the county is currently reviewing options for the end of the moratorium, including a potential ordinance requiring licensing of large livestock facilities. They are also conducting a feasibility study of composting manure in the county.

Discovery Farms is conducting nitrogen use efficiency research on eight farms in Pepin County in 2019, as well as on several farms in Dunn and Sauk counties, said Abby Augarten, nitrogen use efficiency project coordinator with Discovery Farms. On-farm research in Pepin County is studying the cycle of nitrogen being used to grow corn.

“We’re working with a group of farmers who are interested in trying to proactively understand their nitrogen use and the efficiency of that use and tackle the groundwater concern along with remaining productive in growing corn,” said Kevan Klingberg, outreach specialist with the Discovery Farms program.

Don Weiss of Weiss Family Farms in Durand is part of a farmer-led watershed initiative in the county and has also attended the Pepin County Water Advisory Group meetings. Weiss is in his second year growing the nitrogen-fixing corn on test plots on his farm.

Nitrogen-fixing corn was first brought up at a meeting of the Pepin County Water Advisory Group several years ago, Travis said.

“We had heard about it and thought of it as a pie-in-the-sky idea,” he said. “But if we can reduce the amount of nitrate that we are applying to the ground, the hope is we will reduce the amount that can end up infiltrating into our groundwater and hopefully begin turning things around on the nitrates in groundwater.”

Weiss said he is looking for ways his farm can have less of an impact on the environment while still remaining profitable. He started testing the nitrogen-fixing corn after his neighborhood’s church had to put in a reverse osmosis machine to get its well’s nitrate levels safe for drinking.

“We just want to make it possible for our families to be able to drink the water here in the future and still be profitable,” Weiss said. “If (the nitrogen-fixing) corn is the answer, we could save money by not having to use nitrogen and save our water by not polluting it.

“We’re just trying to do the right thing.”