Almost everyone agrees that Door County’s economy is dependent on tourism, and that tourism is reliant on clean water. I believe that we are now facing a potential environmental crisis, that could soon become an economic one for Door County. The Bay of Green Bay is being polluted by record amounts of phosphorus. Phosphorus (P04) is an essential natural element that allows all life forms to proliferate. In fact, without phosphorus life would not exist. The problem is that the sheer quantity of phosphorus being introduced to our land and water is overwhelming the capacity of the environment to handle it. This contamination has, and will, continue to dramatically impact our water quality. Imagine what will happen to tourism if the bay becomes so phosphorus contaminated that it is undrinkable, “un-swimmable,” and unable to support game fish. What if foul smelling, oxygen deprived “dead zone” areas of water containing brown and green algae are in our water and along shores? Perhaps you’re thinking it’s just not going to happen. Unfortunately, it can. This is exactly what has happened in Lake Erie.
Consider the economic impact. According to the Door County Visitor Bureau, Door County tourism generated $347.8 million in direct visitor spending in 2016, and an overall impact of $442.8 million dollars. In 2016 tourism supported 3,178 jobs, with total labor income of $75.1 million. Tourism in Door County alone generated $37.5 million dollars in state and local tax revenue. Obviously, tourism is very important, and phosphorus pollution of our water hurts tourism. Phosphorus is being introduced to our waters from a number of sources including; failing septic systems, lawn over fertilization, municipal sanitary waste discharges, and agriculture, including concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Manure from CAFOs is a significant and growing part of the pollution problem. Kewaunee County’s 100,000 cows are producing 700 million gallons of liquefied manure annually. Almost all of this animal waste is simply spread on the ground. While Door County has far fewer cows, the number is expanding and contributing to the problem. The thin soils of northeastern Wisconsin simply cannot filter all of this animal waste, so it goes into our ground and surface waters. Wisconsin courts have ruled that manure, when it reaches the aquifer, is a pollutant. Well okay, but isn’t agriculture an important industry here, too? Yes, it is. The Kewaunee County Economic Development Corporation reports that Kewaunee County’s agriculture industry produces $80 million of revenue annually, $60 million of which comes from dairy operations.
Both the agriculture and tourism industries are important. We need, however, to find a way to coexist. Farmers absolutely have a right to farm. They do not, however, have the right to pollute. The first step is to not expand dairy herd sizes here until an effective animal waste treatment system that ends phosphorus pollution of our waters is in place. This is not happening now. In fact, on Nov. 28 the Wisconsin DNR held a hearing for five Kewaunee County CAFOs. Three of the five were seeking expansion permits. To date, the DNR has never refused a CAFO permit. If approved, there will be 4,502 more cows contributing waste to the existing phosphorus problem. It is past time for all of us, including our elected representatives, to address this real problem. Our economic wellbeing, environment, and way of life is at stake.
Sister Bay, Wis.