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July 8, 2011: Wild Side: Big dairy farm poisons Rush River again

The Rush River looking downstream from the County Road Y bridge in New Centerville during summer. Note the dense algae growth indicative of high nutrient loading. Wisconsin DNR photo.

On Sunday, April 17, a number of us river watchers noticed dead fish in the upper Rush River in New Centerville. Standing on the County Road Y bridge, I could see scattered dead brown trout, brook trout, suckers, shiners and a few fish that appeared to be struggling. We contacted the DNR to report the fish kill.

As mad as I was about the fish kill, I held off writing this article about it until I received a written report by the DNR about its investigation. Fish kills are notoriously hard to diagnose to determine their causes and the sources of toxins. After many inquiries, I received a Notice of Non-Compliance and the DNR reports about its investigations of the fish kill on June 21.

Dean Doornik, manager and owner of Jon-De Farms Inc., a 1,500-plus cow dairy near Baldwin, reported a liquid manure spill to the DNR that occurred at about 10 a.m. April 11. Farm workers had been spreading liquid manure from a lagoon on the farm onto surrounding fields by pumping it through a pipeline and spewing it out onto the surface of the land using an irrigation pivot sprayer.

Doornik reported that the pipeline conveying about 1,000 gallons per minute had broken and a "trace amount" of liquid manure entered the Rush River. They found the pipeline break 150 feet from the Rush River after 10 minutes with the pump still going after they noticed a pressure drop. They stopped the pump, plowed up a berm to contain the spilled manure and chisel plowed it into the ground before the DNR arrived later that day to inspect the spill. The DNR person who investigated the spill at about 2:30 that afternoon determined that the manure spilled into the river was too small of an amount to detect or had already flowed away.

I spoke to Marty Engel, DNR Senior Fisheries biologist, who investigated the fish kill on April 18-19 along with Conservation Warden Brad Peterson. They found 113 dead trout and many dead white suckers, creek chubs, mottled sculpins, darters, frogs, tadpoles and crayfish. Engel said the DNR considers this event a serious fish kill.

The kill took place in the upper Rush River, where trout density is low, about 100 to 200 trout per mile. This does not make the event any less important. The investigation indicates that the source of the kill was a single pulse of toxins into the river causing death to aquatic life in the headwaters of the Rush River above County Road Y in New Centerville. Downstream from that point additional ground water entering the river helped dilute the pulse of toxins and negate the deadly effects.

Liquid manure is deadly to life in streams because it contains ammonia nitrogen that dissociates in water creating highly toxic unionized ammonia and because it depletes dissolved oxygen that aquatic animals need to respire.

Based on its investigation, on June 16 the DNR issued a Notice of Non-Compliance to Jon-Dee Farms Inc. in violation of NR 243 and Section 1.1 of its Wisconsin Pollution Elimination System (WPDES) Permit that states that, "The permittee may have no direct runoff from a feedlot or stored manure to waters of the state." Also, NR 243 and Section 3.2.11 of the WPDES Permit states that, "Surface applied manure may not run off the intended site at any time." The fact that manure was discharged from the field and did reach the Rush River is violation of NR 243 requirements and the WPDES Permit.

The DNR could not establish a direct causal link between the liquid manure spill and the fish kill, given the lack of downstream water quality sampling immediately after the spill and the time that elapsed before the fish kill was detected and investigated.

This has happened before. There were a series of violations by the Jon-Dee Farms Inc. of its WPDES permit from late 2000 through April 2002 for manure and feed leachate discharges into the Rush River. A lawsuit brought by the state resulted in a token fine.

Ironically, the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association issued a statement on Sept. 23, 2009, that read, "Few things in Wisconsin are more important than protecting our environment and assuring the long-term success of the dairy industry, a cornerstone of our state's economy. These goals are not mutually exclusive. Today's dairy farmers are committed to farming in a way that protects our natural resources while producing safe, nutritious and affordable dairy products for consumers in Wisconsin and around the world, while protecting our environment and contributing to the quality rural way of life we enjoy in our great state... Permitted dairies in Wisconsin are held to a 'zero discharge' standard. By law, large dairies must apply the valuable nutrients found in manure in a way that assures there is no discharge of that manure to any body of water."

The really sad thing about the recent fish kill in the Rush River is that there is a large community of people who love that river and have invested countless days, much state and private funding, and enormous effort in restoring the fishery. That a single agri-business operation can spew cow manure over the surface of the landscape with impunity under the supposedly watchful regulatory eye of the DNR and poison the nationally-renown Rush River yet again is tragic.

There is no need for big dairies or animal feedlot operations to send liquid manure through hydraulic pipelines near rivers and spew it onto the land surface using irrigation equipment. If you have ever been near one of those operations, your olfactory memory won't ever forget it. It doesn't make business sense either -- much of the nitrogen in the manure is lost to the atmosphere when sprayed out onto the land. Nitrogen fertilizer now costs over $500 a ton.

Applying liquid manure on the land surface in the early spring when the soil is close to saturation and when rain and snow can cause unexpected runoff events where it can convey the manure into streams should not be allowed. That's not agriculture. It's irresponsible abuse of land and water. Technology exists for careful application of animal wastes by directly injecting it into the ground and to avoid runoff and overdosing fields.

Already much of Wisconsin agricultural land is so overloaded with phosphorus that it's causing serious eutrophication of our rivers and lakes. Phosphorus attaches to soil particles, so every time you see muddy water coming off agricultural fields, think about the phosphorus loading and the algae that will grow from that.

The mega-dairies must fully comply with their nutrient management plans and their NR243 and WPDES permits. No more excuses. It's high time for the dairy industry to walk its talk. The DNR and the state attorney general should take the gloves off in their dealings with them. If any other type of business poisoned a river in Wisconsin, there would be hell to pay.

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