bacteria2

The number of concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOS, in Wisconsin has shot up in the past decade — as have concerns about their impact on water quality. Manure is a contributor to bacterial and viral contamination in Wisconsin’s drinking water. Seen in 2013, this large farm near Hilbert, Wisconsin, operated by Holsum Dairies, has been recognized by the state for its efforts to protect the environment.

Kate Golden / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

After a proposal to study moving more regulatory authority of large farms from the Department of Natural Resources to the agriculture department was removed from his budget, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is again proposing to make the change.

Walker included the proposal in his rural agenda, which he released Thursday at the Governor’s Northern Economic and Community Development Summit.

In a list of bulleted items that address issues that include education, broadband access and rural healthcare, a press release from Walker’s office stated, “We will work with the legislature and the EPA to transfer regulatory authority over large farms from the DNR to DATCP to encourage the best use of technical expertise and create program efficiencies.”

The regulation of an escalating number of concentrated animal feeding operations, also known as CAFOs, is delegated to the state by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which would have to approve the change.

Walker’s budget proposal in February to study transferring regulatory authority to the Department Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection raised concerns from environmental groups.

In March, environmentalists complained that the proposal would shift regulatory authority from an agency charged with protecting water resources to one whose mission is to promote the agricultural industry.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported last February that Walker’s initial proposal came months after he met with lobbyists from the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association, which is pushing the move. Midwest Environmental Advocates attorney Tressie Kamp said Walker’s proposal today substantially limits the voices of stakeholders in the issue because it doesn’t include the study committee that the original proposal did.

“Today’s announcement raised additional concerns by skirting any potential public input, demonstrating the unimpeded access and control that Dairy Business Association has over the Governor’s office and ultimately over large-scale policy decisions in our state,” she said. “Our elected officials should prioritize citizen voices over industry interests.”

Amber Meyer Smith of the environmental group Clean Wisconsin said the measure would weaken the state’s already problematic efforts to regulate CAFOs.

“With all the pollution issues surrounding these industrial agriculture operations — drinking water well contamination, polluted runoff choking our beaches, a dead zone in Green Bay — now is the time to strengthen the state’s commitment to protecting people and take a critical look at the impact these operations are having, not look at ways to relax the state’s oversight,” she said in an email.

As Madison as it gets: Get Cap Times' highlights sent daily to your inbox

Walker’s initial budget proposal was axed by the Legislature’s budget committee in an effort to remove non-fiscal items from the spending plan. A staffer at the office of state Sen. Rob Cowles, who chairs the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, said no one in the office could address the matter on Friday. According to Wispolitics.com, Cowles, R-Green Bay, said earlier this year that he had no interest in bringing the proposal back as standalone legislation, and he knew of no other lawmakers that were.

Walker spokesman Tom Evenson didn’t return a message asking who in the Legislature Walker was working with to advance the proposal.

A dairy farm is considered a CAFO when it houses more than 700 dairy cows. Numbering only about 50 in the state in 2000, the number of dairy CAFOs increased to more than 250 by 2013, and the number of cows housed in such operations is increasing. The millions of pounds of manure produced the large dairy operations pose risks of contaminated groundwater and fouled lakes and streams.

The state Legislative Audit Bureau found several problems with the state’s CAFO regulation process last year, including 17 farms that weren’t inspected until they were issued permits, declining enforcement actions and backlogged permits. The bureau also found that the DNR issues only 33 notices of violation to farms when 559 violations merited such notices.

Whether or not the governor’s proposal would address those shortcomings is unclear, Kamp said, because he provided no information aside from voicing his intent to make the change.

“We don’t know if this change is happening for the sake of making a change, or creating a distraction, or if it’s going to result in a better program or a worse program,” she said.

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.

Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.