Kewaunee County water study looks backward, not forward

By Don Niles, PPF president

Another study about Kewaunee County has popped up dealing with groundwater, cows and humans in our community. News stories about the study, which uses data collected in 2016-17, are causing some unfounded concerns about people getting sick, today, from farming practices.

The fact is no farmer wants to cause even one person to become ill, and we go to great lengths to keep that from happening. That commitment won’t change, with or without a study.

As to the most recent study, people deserve a more complete explanation of what it is and is not.

What it is, is fairly technical research using data from well water samples collected in 2016-17. In other words, this is a follow-up analysis of old — not new — data. The study uses that data to make a mathematical model to predict — predict — what the author believes we currently should be experiencing in the way of acute gastrointestinal illness among residents due to manure and human waste. 

What the study is not, is an epidemiological study to determine the actual number of people who get sick here. It is not a study that uses any current Kewaunee County public health data. Surprisingly, the Kewaunee County Public Health Department was never even contacted directly by the study’s authors. Only a handful of such cases are seen each year, and the department tracks each one to determine the likely source of infections. If they had checked, the researchers would have learned the majority of those cases are determined to be from causes other than contaminated groundwater.

To put this in simpler terms: If I wanted to know what was for dinner at home tonight, I could either survey all local grocery stores to find out what foodstuffs they have been selling, then make a model to predict what is likely for dinner. Alternatively, I could go home and see what’s on the grill. This study took the first approach. 

So, we find ourselves in a strange situation. We have a mathematical predictive study showing we should have a lot of sick people. But we have a medical community that says we don’t.

There’s another important consideration that the study and the news stories promoting it do not reflect.

A tremendous amount has changed in farming practices and regulations in the years since those well samples were taken. Farmers have proactively joined together in Peninsula Pride Farms to find and implement solutions for improving both ground and surface water quality. By working together, and using science, we vastly increased the adoption of new protective farming practices.

So, data from half a decade ago is simply not a fair measure of current practices. As a farming community, we have made great advances and we are not content to stop now. We remain committed to continuous improvement, and there’s ample evidence of this.

When the water quality data cited in the study was collected, we had 3,864 acres in no-till farming; in 2020 we quadrupled that number to 12,284 acres. In 2016 we had 4,189 acres of cover crops; in 2020 we were up more than fourfold to 18,653 acres. Both of these practices improve soil health. Healthy soil helps filter contaminants out before they can reach groundwater.  Our coordinated use of these practices to improve soil health and ground water quality in an entire watershed, with an aim of directly affecting ground water, is unique. 

Since 2016, we also have more than doubled the amount of manure that goes through a methane digester in areas with shallow soils, providing tremendous pathogen reduction to the manure itself before it is applied to fields.

Also, state regulations in our areas have become much stricter. There is no longer any manure being applied by anybody on any fields with less than 2 feet of soil.

On the Door County Peninsula, we are fortunate to have a medical community that is dedicated and professional, county conservation departments that are diligent and involved and a farming community that is focused on healthy soil, cows and neighbors.

We firmly believe that we can have both clean, safe water and a thriving agricultural community.

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