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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 (NR 151).

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The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources announced that its revised rules on livestock water and runoff management will go into effect on July 1, 2018. This rule revision has been the result of years of work by advocates in northeast Wisconsin who are living with drinking water contaminated with nitrates, bacteria, and parasites. Midwest Environmental Advocates advocated for more stringent drinking water protections, but ultimately supported the compromise that will provide modest additional protections for residents of the northeast part of the state. Powerful special interest groups opposed the very modest public health protections in the proposed rule.

The final rule revision came after a unanimous Wisconsin Natural Resources Board vote to approve final rules to protect groundwater in sensitive areas from manure spreading in NR 151 of the Wisconsin Administrative Code. The January 24, 2018 vote was covered in the media including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Wisconsin State Journal and the Kewaunee Comet.

Some of the most promising changes in the revised rule include:

  • prohibition on mechanical applications of manure on fields that have less than two feet of soil over bedrock or groundwater;
  • prohibition on mechanical applications of manure on frozen or snow-covered ground on fields with less than five feet of soil over bedrock; and • requirement that manure applications leave a 250-foot setback from drinking water wells. 

While these changes are promising, DNR needs to do more to protect our drinking water. These rule changes apply to both large and small farming operations, but more should be asked of large, industrial concentrated animal feeding operations. DNR’s lack of rule application to other areas of the state is also disappointing. Central, southern, and southeastern regions of the state are equally susceptible to groundwater contamination, yet they are not protected by these rules. We encourage residents of southwest WI who also have groundwater vulnerable to contamination to advocate for equal protection and to ask the government to start by assessing the extent of contamination in southwest WI. 

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 rule changes are intended to better protect groundwater from contamination by manure used as fertilizer on crop fields.

By 2017, the proposed rule revision was a step in the right direction, but Midwest Environmental Advocates weighed in with suggested improvements to further strengthen the rule. Some of the most promising changes included:

  • 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.

However, there were other aspects of the proposed rule that could have been strengthened or clarified. MEA was 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 (read more about the unique ways the Driftless area needs water protection in this article from the Crawford County Independent), and the central sands region. But this rule change proposal showed that the 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 was 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.

In December 2017, MEA joined with Clean Water Action Council of Northeast Wisconsin, River Alliance of Wisconsin, and Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters in a letter written by Clean Wisconsin urging NRB to move quickly and not weaken the NR 151 rules package.  This came after the NRB eliminated groundwater contamination from their December meeting agenda, sparking comments from WLCV.  Clean Wisconsin also created a fact sheet illustrating the dangers of manure spreading, and how NR 151 will address these issues.

On January 18, we joined more groups that signed on to a follow-up letter from Clean Wisconsin including the Clean Water Action Council of Northeast Wisconsin, Friends of the Central Sands, Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, River Alliance of Wisconsin, Sierra Club-John Muir Chapter, Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association and the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters. The letter emphasized why the rule changes were reasonable and how the modest changes only impact 15% of Wisconsin agricultural land.

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