Editor's note: This story is part of a series recapping the top stories of 2017. Read the other top stories here.
In late December 2016, a failure in the pumping system at Emerald Sky Dairy began leaking manure.
At the same time, in response to Emerald Sky's pursuit of nearly tripling its animal units to more than 8,800, the newly formed St. Croix County Ground and Surface Water Quality Study Group was preparing for its first meeting less than two weeks away.
The spill went unreported until March 29. Owner Todd Tuls, who took ownership of the dairy in March 2016, said conditions made prevention and detection all but impossible.
In a statement, the company cited the infrequent use of a pump connected to the pipeline as well as weather conditions for the reporting delay.
Prior to public knowledge of the dairy's spill, the mere size of the proposed expansion paired with its proximity caused Emerald Sky Dairy neighbors Chad and Mary Enerson to rethink plans to replace their old farmhouse with a new house overlooking a pond. The pond central to the Enerson's plans, however, sits downgrade from Emerald Sky Dairy.
The groundwater discussion
Roughly 25 minutes northwest of the Enersons near Star Prairie, farmer Jody Lenz and her family were forced to resort to bottled water after their well tested high for nitrates.
Lenz, who owns and operates Threshing Table, a community supported agriculture farm in Star Prairie, participated in the St. Croix County Ground and Surface Water Quality Study Group.
The group, established in lieu of a moratorium on concentrated animal feeding operations, was tasked with providing recommendations for policies to protect the county's water.
After nine months of meetings, which was extended by three months, the group presented those recommendations to the county Board of Supervisors in October.
Improved data-gathering, transparency and weighing current farming and environmental regulations were pillars of the eight — paired down from more than 30 — final recommendations.
"These were things that were short-term goals," said citizen member Tom Zwald, whose family operates a dairy farm in St. Croix County. "We excluded anything that was long term when we did this just because these are things we can focus on right here in the now."
Some, however, hoped for a harder, more definitive line to be drawn.
For Kim Dupre, a resident of Emerald township who heads Emerald Clean Water for All, a grassroots organization aimed at protecting the community's water supply, the recommendations signal a "journey — not a destination."
"It'd be really easy for the recommendations to end up on a shelf, in a binder and have nobody ever look at them again," Dupre said.
Lenz stressed the importance of the continued effort to protect the county's water, and said she was disappointed with local government's lack of control over CAFOs. A trend in recent years at the state level, legislators have regularly relaxed regulations on the largest operations when given the opportunity.
Everyone who participated in the study group, she said, agreed groundwater needs to be clean. The cause of unclean water, however, was far from consensus.
"One thing we learned throughout the course of it is there are multiple sources for well contamination," Zwald said. "Depending on the topography, soils and subsoils you have, you could be in an environmentally sensitive area that would require different levels of construction or separations from your septic to your well to make sure your well is safe."
Tuls described the state of the facility upon purchase as "very much neglected" and the manure storage system as "borderline."
Ultimately, however, he took responsibility for the spill.
"It is tough," he said in late June, "but I'm not going to make excuses. We're responsible. Anything that happens, it's really, truly our responsibility."
One of the biggest concerns for Mary Enerson is the lack of local ownership.
"Nobody lives there," she said. Her husband added there have been problems with nearby farms before, but they were able to address those issues directly with the owners because they weren't only farmers, but neighbors.
In March, a WDNR notice of noncompliance addressed to Tuls' son T.J. at Emerald Sky Dairy stated the dairy violated terms of its Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit by applying solid manure to frozen ground during a restricted period.
According to the notice, Emerald Sky Dairy said a new employee's unfamiliarity with the permit restrictions resulted in the violation.
As for the spill, Tuls said cleanup cost estimates were $1 million and the installation of a new manure lagoon could cost anywhere from $1 million to $1.5 million.
"We need to improve those (deficiencies) and we need to make sure this never happens again," Tuls said. "And the way we're going to do that is by building a new lagoon in the proper location."
Aside from Emerald Sky Dairy, Tuls owns Double Dutch Dairy and Butler County Dairy in eastern Nebraska.
In 2011, operations began in southern Wisconsin outside of Janesville at Rock Prairie Dairy and Tuls received county approval for Pinnacle Dairy last spring, a new dairy site west of Rock Prairie in Green County.
In total, Tuls said he is responsible for approximately 40,000 dairy cows.