DNR proposed budget is doing less with less
Sep 29, 2016
Yesterday, the Wisconsin State Natural Resources Board – the citizen body that sets policy for the Department of Natural Resources and may exercise authority and responsibilities under our state’s law – approved a proposed budget for the agency. The DNR’s budget proposal – like all state agencies following marching orders from our Governor and state legislators – includes cuts to spending and staff resources in the next biennial state budget.
While there is some good news in the reallocation of four DNR staffers to monitor water pollution permits for our state’s largest livestock operations, the most powerful leaders of our state seem only committed to bleeding our DNR dry.
This budget proposal looks even worse in light of recent scrutiny over DNR’s failing environmental protection programs. Here are just a few recent examples:
- The Legislative Audit Bureau released a report this summer that identified serious deficiencies with the DNR's Clean Water Act program. It is clear that many of these problems require additional staff trained in water pollution management and environmental law enforcement to fix.
- On behalf of Wisconsin citizens, Midwest Environmental Advocates filed a Petition for Corrective Action with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on October 20, 2015 to fix Wisconsin’s Clean Water Act program. This included many of the issues later echoed in the LAB audit as well as other deficiencies, all of which require staff time and resources to fix. EPA is scheduled to visit DNR next month to check up on its progress.
- EPA is also putting pressure on the DNR to take action to address Kewaunee County groundwater pollution associated with agricultural sources including the largest livestock operations called concentrated animal feeding operations. EPA got involved after MEA and other environmental organizations petitioned the federal government for help under the Safe Drinking Water Act because DNR was not taking action to remedy the public health threats caused by mismanagement of CAFO manure waste.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources badly needs more staff and more funding to do the job right. Shifting four staff positions to monitor and enforce CAFO water pollution permits is long overdue and is a positive step forward for citizens who live near CAFOs who have been begging for help from the state to keep CAFO pollution in check.
But with an overall cut of 9.5 staff, DNR leadership is not applying for the resources to fix the water protection problems our state faces, particularly when under political pressure from the Governor and state legislature who repeatedly call for cutting and underfunding state agencies like the DNR. At the very least, the people of Wisconsin need the leadership of the DNR and the Natural Resources Board to boldly ask for the staff and resources that it needs to follow the law and protect our water resources and public health.
One solution to the lack of revenue to fund our natural resources protection agency, mentioned in a recent Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article, is to increase Clean Water Act permit fees in Wisconsin. As one example, CAFOs pay only $350 in fees to get a Clean Water Act (or WPDES) permit from the DNR once every five years. Of that, only $95 goes to the DNR CAFO pollution management program. The rest goes to the state’s general fund.
Let’s compare that to the overall cost of DNR’s CAFO program. The LAB estimated that in 2015-16, DNR’s CAFO WPDES program cost $2,402,000. In 2016, there were 285 CAFOs with WPDES permits in Wisconsin. Even if all permitted CAFOs paid that permit fee every year, the portion of the permit fees that go to DNR would generate only $27,075, or a mere 1.1% of the $2.4 million annual cost of the CAFO program. The businesses that profit from these operations need to pay their fair share. Right now, the taxpayers are picking up the difference because the legislature is unwilling to make industry pay the true cost of doing business.
Making the Wisconsin State Department of Natural Resources do less with less is more about politics than creating real efficiencies or even adequate protections for our natural resources. Passing on the costs and burdens to keep pollution out of our state’s water and air to citizens taking on efforts to pressure or even sue the state to fulfill its responsibility is how these budget cuts will truly be felt by our state’s taxpayers in the long run.