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Moving backwards in Wisconsin groundwater protections

Aug 03, 2016

Today the Wisconsin State Natural Resources Board is meeting in Ashland, WI. We expect they will have a robust public comment period focusing on one major theme: manure.

Why is this getting so much attention in the news? It’s a long story – but below are some of the highlights of what’s happened and answers to questions we’ve heard from people who want to know why today’s meeting could be a pivotal moment in the way our state protects our water, follows environmental laws, and chooses whose interests are more important – big agribusiness or the public.

Below is more from Midwest Environmental Advocates staff attorney Sarah Geers. Read more in Monday’s “Two petitions and a lawsuit: how citizens are using the power of the law to protect water” post on our involvement in challenging a concentrated animal feeding operation pollution permit in Kewaunee County as well as filing two petitions to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency which began important federal scrutiny and intervention in Wisconsin.

Today, the NRB is reviewing new rules for how livestock operations manage manure waste. The watered-down Department of Natural Resources rule proposal before the Board represents more than just a missed opportunity. It reveals the enormous influence of moneyed special interests in every level of government. It demonstrates our government’s lack of will to take meaningful action for clean water protection. Worse, it means Kewaunee County residents who have polluted wells will continue to wait for their government to protect their drinking water from manure pollution.

Doesn’t our government already have laws that protect drinking water from manure pollution?

Yes and no. In case you missed it, some areas of Wisconsin, like Kewaunee County, are dealing with a groundwater quality crisis. Wisconsin’s cracked and porous karst geology makes our groundwater susceptible to pollution such as land-applied manure on fields as fertilizer, or simply to dispose of livestock waste. Following years of pressure from citizens and due to environmental organizations like Midwest Environmental Advocates who filed a petition to the EPA under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the DNR convened stakeholder workgroups to examine whether existing laws adequately protect sensitive karst areas. The final report concluded that they do not, and stakeholders proposed recommendations for these areas.

Learn more about the Safe Drinking Water Act petiton to the EPA and the results of the groundwater collaboration workgroups on our website.

I can’t believe Wisconsin wouldn’t do something about a drinking water emergency, maybe the DNR doesn't agree with the workgroup recommendations?

No, publicly everyone agrees that current regulations aren’t working to protect sensitive areas like Kewaunee. DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp noted that DNR already started implementing some of the recommendations and suggested DNR was considering changes to their rules. After release of the workgroup report, Governor Walker and Rep. Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay) agreed that “different DNR rules governing agriculture were needed for unique geological areas of the state” like Kewaunee County. Rep. Kitchens reported that well contamination in Kewaunee created “a sense of urgency” in the Governor’s office and DNR.

But that sense of urgency to provide and protect clean drinking water to people with polluted wells ended when the Governor shared the DNR’s draft of the new rules with the Dairy Business Association for feedback before the rules were available to the Natural Resources Board or to the public. After that, the DNR was convinced to pull part of its rule proposal package before sending it to the NRB.

But isn’t the DNR proposing a rule change to define sensitive areas and manure spreading practices to protect the water?

Yes and no. There are two sets of rules that apply to animal feeding operations: NR 151 provides general agricultural standards, and NR 243 provides permit requirements primarily for the largest animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.

Signed on June 15, the DNR initially sent the Governor a rule package with one scope statement for improving general agriculture standards (NR 151) to develop better practices for sensitive areas. It sent a separate scope statement for CAFOs (NR 243) that would have incorporated those changes and addressed other problems that threaten water quality and limit public participation.

After the Governor sent the rule proposals to DBA and DBA met with DNR, the only scope statement that was sent to the Natural Resources Board for approval was the proposal for changes to NR 151 (WT-15-16) (PDF). We fear that the scaled-back rule package signals that DNR is backing away from meaningful change to its regulation of CAFOs in sensitive areas.

Most importantly, the DNR must not back away from the results of months of EPA-prompted groundwater collaboration workgroup research, discussion, travel, time spent in meetings and in finally producing a set of stakeholder advised recommendations that might be a roadmap to meaningful water protection in Wisconsin.

Our concern only increased when we got the first formal notice from the DNR of these proposed rule changes. On July 28, Secretary Stepp highlighted some practices for sensitive areas that DNR was considering for the rule revision, which notably were the bare minimum practices that CAFOs with water pollution permits around the state must already meet.

That all sounds pretty depressing; isn’t there any good news?

Wisconsin residents aren’t giving in to special interests and neither are we. MEA’s Tressie Kamp as well as partner organizations Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters and Clean Wisconsin, and many concerned residents are making themselves heard at today’s NRB meeting (video of the discussion and public testimony will be posted to the NRB webpage). MEA also submitted written comments to the NRB with more details on the technical and workgroup recommendation considerations that are needed to make more progress with NR 151 rule changes.

Midwest Environmental Advocates will continue support citizens who hold our government accountable to do more than just talk about clean drinking water. Investigative journalists at Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism will continue to shine a light on special interest influence and our government’s failure to protect our water resources.

We’re at a critical juncture in Wisconsin. On our current path, our government is beholden to special interests and puts short-term business interests ahead of clean drinking water. But there is another path in which our DNR manages our water resources for the long-term benefit of both residents and businesses that mutually rely on clean water. Let’s keep up the fight to push our government in that direction.


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