Contact: Sarah Geers, (608)251-5047 x 5
[email protected]
Stacy Harbaugh, (608)251-5047 x 1
[email protected]

Years of citizen pressure results in agency acting on existing power

MADISON, WI – The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is taking steps to provide emergency drinking water to rural Wisconsin residents with drinking water wells that are contaminated with livestock manure. After several years of petitions, meetings and citizen pressure, the state agency has agreed to use an existing part of our state’s administrative code – Chapter NR 738 – to initiate procedures to provide drinking water to qualifying residents.

“Brown water events” are not new to rural Wisconsinites who live near fields where livestock manure is spread for both fertilizer and for disposal. But the uptick over the last decade in the number of our state’s largest livestock operations and their tens of millions of gallons of liquid waste has created a public health threat when manure is spread on land, soaks into ground, enters the groundwater and families’ drinking wells and the concentration of pathogens spikes.

“This relief has been a long time coming, and we’re glad the DNR finally stepped up to address this public health threat,” said Staff Attorney Sarah Geers. “Our primary concern has always been getting emergency supplies of clean drinking water to residents suffering with manure-contaminated wells. Several years ago, we asked the DNR to explore its existing options like the funding and authority in Chapter NR 738 to provide this relief. Despite the delay, we thank the DNR for continuing to look for solutions to the pervasive public health crisis of manure contamination.”

Here is what we know about the DNR’s proposal to supply emergency drinking water to those with manure-contaminated wells, sometimes called “brown water events”:

  • Who qualifies: A private well owner who has experienced a brown water event or had a positive E. coli test can contact DNR immediately.
  • DNR advisory: DNR staff will respond as soon as possible (hopefully the same day) to determine if manure is the likely cause of contamination. If DNR staff determine that livestock manure is the likely source, the DNR can immediately issue an advisory to the well user. This advisory will allow the resident to access emergency drinking water.
  • Where to get water: Residents who have been issued advisories can use a network of water companies to obtain an emergency drinking water supply delivered to their home.
  • Water testing: DNR staff will also take a water sample to conduct a test called Microbial Source Tracking (MST) to further confirm that animal manure caused the contamination.
  • Permanent solutions and well compensation: DNR will provide this emergency drinking water for approximately six months while DNR staff works with the private well owner to find a permanent solution (including the DNR’s Well Compensation Program).

Years of public pressure on the DNR to use its existing power to protect drinking water prompted this action.

All of these actions reflect one thing: citizens want our state government to use its power to protect our drinking water. We applaud the DNR for taking action to provide emergency drinking water to any Wisconsin resident with a water well that is contaminated with manure.

The DNR has more information on problems with manure in drinking water on the agency’s website.

Midwest Environmental Advocates is a public interest organization that uses the power of the law to support communities fighting for environmental accountability. Learn more about the Midwest Environmental Advocates on the web at, like MEA on Facebook or follow @MidwestAdvocate on Twitter.

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