The DNR proposed a narrowed rule-making plan for protecting water from farm manure. Manure is a contributor to bacterial and viral contamination in Wisconsin’s drinking water. Above, this large farm near Hilbert has been recognized by the state for its efforts to protect the environment.

Kate Golden / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

The state Department of Natural Resources policy board on Wednesday approved limited plans for reducing manure contamination of public waters despite complaints about excessive dairy industry influence and worries the department won’t have staff to enforce any new rules.

“We need money to get these things done,” Natural Resources Board chairman Terry Hilgenberg said after the vote. “Unfortunately, we as a board have nothing to say about how much money comes in.”

It will be up to lawmakers and Gov. Scott Walker to decide whether to bring staffing levels up to what DNR officials say they need and provide resources to more closely monitor pollution under new rules that are to be written over the next two years.

DNR secretary Cathy Stepp didn’t address staffing issues, which were highlighted in a recent audit report, but she was upbeat about the prospects that neighbors of large animal feedlots eventually would have cleaner water.

“I know we are going to stand up at the end of the process and say, ‘Hey, Wisconsin knows how to do it right’, ” Stepp said.

Stepp told NRB members the rules wouldn’t solve all of the state’s water problems, but they were “a giant step forward.”

The board listened to dozens of speakers from around the state, many reporting problems with manure pollution and urging the board to reverse a DNR decision to postpone indefinitely a significant portion of the rule-making it had proposed to Walker on June 15.

After Walker’s office notified farm industry lobbyists, the state Dairy Business Association met with DNR officials and complained about the potential cost of new rules, prompting the agency to narrow their scope.

Instead of stronger regulation of manure at CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) statewide, any new rules will apply only in yet-to-be-defined sensitive areas where groundwater is especially vulnerable.

Also removed were plans for new standards for aerial spraying of manure.

Wisconsin Wildlife Federation executive director George Meyer said his members were shocked Monday to read a Wisconsin State Journal report on the way the plans were changed without notification of people affected by polluted lakes, streams and wells.

“What made it worse was that the governor did so after consulting (with farm groups) but without consulting with the well owners or the thousands of property owners whose property is worth less because of eutrophication of lakes,” Meyer said, referring to the excess of nutrients in lakes, often resulting from farm runoff, that produces a lot of plant growth and can impair animal survival.

Meyer added that recreational users were also affected.

Some wells can’t be used

Pollution from millions of gallons of manure dairy operations spread on fields has rendered many drinking water wells useless in places like Kewaunee County and left surface water clogged with weeds and contaminated by bacteria and hazardous blue-green algae.

Kewaunee County has been hard hit for many years, and residents expressed impatience, but Stepp said the DNR couldn’t begin to act until scientific evidence was in place.

Residents of other areas where the DNR is considering approval of new CAFOs or expansion of existing ones — including Bayfield County, in the state’s central sands region and the northwest corner of the state — said they worried they would become the next Kewaunee County.

“The cuts to DNR as a whole are a travesty and we are paying the price,” said Virginia Drath of Emerald in St. Croix County.

But NRB members said the plan they approved balanced everyone’s interests.

“We aren’t going to flesh out this scope statement based on the court of public opinion,” said board member Bill Bruins.

Board member Frederick Prehn suggested that optimism was in order.

“I look out in the audience and see a lot of long faces,” Prehn said. “The bottom line is today we are finally going to address it.”

Member Gregory Kazmierski questioned the motives of some who criticized the rules plan.

“It’s almost like they are almost anti-business and anti-growth,” Kazmierski said.

The board’s seven members are appointed by the governor.

Critics said rule-making should cover the entire state, include aerial spraying standards and should be done on an emergency basis to speed solutions to contamination of drinking water in places like Kewaunee County.

But the DNR said complexity of the process and opposition from the Dairy Business Association threatened to stall the process for additional years if the agency proposed broader regulations and tried to place them on the fast track.

Among those who addressed the board was the director of a leading farm lobbying group who said the rule changes would be its top priority for the next two years.

“We have to address groundwater contamination,” said Paul Zimmerman, government relations director for the state Farm Bureau Federation.

“We have to have a good image of agriculture across the state,” he added.

Rules would be incorporated in discharge permits of CAFOs. Smaller farms wouldn’t need to comply unless they accepted certain types of government financial help.


Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.