Midwest Environmental Advocates is a nonprofit environmental law center that works for healthy water, air, land and government for this generation and the next. We believe that every citizen has the potential to make a difference.

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Improving livestock manure spreading rules and enforcement

— Advocating for improvements in manure spreading, runoff management and non-point source performance standards in environmental law enforcement in Wisconsin.

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DNR is now accepting comments on its proposed runoff management and nonpoint performance standards in Chapter NR 151 of the Wisconsin Administrative Code. These rules regulate the management of livestock manure from the state’s largest concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), to the state’s smallest farms.

We need everyone in Wisconsin who cares about clean water to comment in support of the positive aspects of the rule change, but also ask the DNR to do better. These proposed changes represent years of work by dedicated citizens and environmental groups to improve water quality protections in areas susceptible to groundwater contamination, like Kewaunee County.

Here are some of the main issues that Midwest Environmental Advocates will raise in comments to DNR:

  1. The proposed rule includes additional protections only for the Silurian dolomite where there is 20 feet or less soil depth to bedrock. Researchers who study this region know that there are risks to groundwater beyond 20 feet depth to bedrock. DNR should revise the rule to provide protections for the entire Silurian dolomite region. DNR can then determine which standards or prohibitions are appropriate for different soil depths to bedrock.
  2. The proposed rule applies only to the Silurian dolomite region and does not include protections for similarly vulnerable groundwater in the carbonate bedrock aquifer in southwest Wisconsin. DNR should explain why it did not include protections for southwest Wisconsin in this proposed rule and what DNR will do to protect groundwater in this region.
  3. Good things in the proposed rules that we want kept in the final rules include:
    • Manure spreading setbacks for public and private drinking water wells and conduits to groundwater; and
    • Prohibitions against manure applications on fields with less than 2 feet depth to bedrock in the Silurian dolomite region.

Online comments can be sent to the DNR through Wednesday, October 4th. Email the DNR at DNRNR151Revisions@dnr.wisconsin.gov. More on the DNR's proposed changes and timeline for rule improvements can be found on the DNR website.

Case Summary

There is no question that something needs to change to deal with Wisconsin's groundwater contamination crisis. Citizens and environmental groups worked for many years to pressure the state Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to put public health first in enforcing laws on livestock waste management.

In 2016, the DNR initiated rule revisions to address groundwater contamination associated with agriculture in areas that are most susceptible to groundwater contamination—particularly in Kewaunee County and the surrounding northeast region where drinking water wells have levels of nitrates and bacteria that threaten human health. The proposed rule changes are intended to better protect groundwater from contamination by manure used as fertilizer on crop fields.

Overall the 2017 proposed rule revision is a step in the right direction, but Midwest Environmental Advocates will weigh in with suggested improvements to further strengthen the rule. Some of the most promising changes include:

  • a prohibition on mechanical applications of manure on fields that have less than two feet of soil over bedrock or groundwater;
  • a prohibition on mechanical applications of manure on frozen or snow-covered ground on fields with less than five feet of soil over bedrock;
  • a requirement that manure applications leave a 250-foot setback from drinking water wells;
  • promotion of reduced application rates, applying manure at the right time, and pathogen treatment.

There are other aspects of the proposed rule that could be strengthened or clarified. MEA is disappointed that the DNR did not take this opportunity to develop targeted performance standards for other regions of the state susceptible to groundwater contamination—such as southwest Wisconsin, and the central sands region. But this rule change proposal shows that DNR takes this issue seriously and recognizes the need for change.

On July 7, 2017, DNR released a draft of revisions to its runoff management and non-point source performance standards in Chapter NR 151 of the Wisconsin Administrative Code. This is the first step in the public review process of the proposed rule revisions.

On August 7, 2017 Midwest Environmental Advocates, Clean Wisconsin, Clean Water Action Council and the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters sent comments to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources on the economic impacts of proposed NR 151 targeted performance standards. The groups' comments emphasize the importance of considering the benefits of protecting clean drinking water for the health of people and our environment as well as the costs passed on to the public when the state fails to ensure agricultural pollution management.

Visit the DNR website for more information on NR 151 rule changes.