Manure spread on corn stubble

The Natural Resources Board recommended that the governor and Legislature put new limits on manure disposal.

Contributed

The Natural Resources Board approved long-awaited new rules Wednesday aimed at keeping dairy manure out of drinking water in 15 eastern Wisconsin counties.

But board members acknowledged that elected officials haven’t supplied the money needed to put the rules into action.

The board heard testimony about “brown water events” — manure- and pathogen-tainted water flowing from faucets — that have been going on for more than a decade in Kewaunee and Door counties where farms spread dairy waste on shallow topsoil.

Department of Natural Resources staff members said new limits on spreading over vulnerable aquifers would take five years to work into pollution permits of all factory farms and the department hasn’t discussed moving more quickly, said Mary Anne Lowndes, DNR runoff management section chief.

There have been reductions in financial assistance needed to ensure smaller farms follow the rules, and decreased staffing levels at the DNR and at the county level where implementation and monitoring of compliance would take place.

Little progress will be made unless agriculture industry groups embrace and promote the regulations to support participation, said Jim VandenBrook, director of Wisconsin Land and Water, which represents county employees who work with farmers on environmental protection.

But it will also take a budgetary commitment from the Legislature and the governor to make sure the regulations translate into clean drinking water, board members said.

“All of this still boils down to your wallet,” said board chairman Terry Hilgenberg. “Where is the money going to come from?”

Gov. Scott Walker, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, didn’t respond to requests for comment Wednesday, when Walker gave his State of the State address.

Hilgenberg and other board members pressed DNR staff for a plan to monitor and enforce the regulations, and for studying other parts of the state where it may be needed.

“We don’t have time,” said board member Preston Cole. “We don’t have five years to see this thing come to fruition.”

DNR staff members said they would update the board in September or October and provide a full report in one year.

The rule change now goes to Walker and the Legislature, where business groups have been lobbying for weakened rules that would be less costly for farmers.

Rule is a compromise

The regulations were created after citizens petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to use its emergency powers under the Clean Water Act to address health hazards in drinking water. The DNR oversaw more than two years of study and debate.

The proposed rule is a compromise between what the industry and conservationists wanted to see. Environmental groups told the board that while the regulations don’t go far enough, it’s urgent that they be put in place as soon as possible as a first step to protect as many as 25,000 drinking water wells.

Among the two dozen people who spoke in support of the rule was Kewaunee County resident Dick Swanson, who brought along two bottles, one holding clear liquid and the other sloshing with brown liquid, as he spoke at the podium.

“This is your decision today,” Swanson said, holding up the bottles.

Others spoke about children hospitalized after drinking well water, people forced to line up for emergency bottled water, thousands of dollars spent on water filters and falling home values.

Paul Zimmerman, a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, told the board his group wants to see the regulations approved.

But the state’s business lobby, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, said it will oppose the rule if the state DNR doesn’t provide sufficient proof that existing regulations can’t protect public health. WMC and the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association didn’t express their objections to the board meeting.

It’s likely that one or more legislative committees will hold a public hearing, but it’s too early to say if lawmakers will seek changes, Mike Mikalson, an aide to Sen. Stephen Nass, has said. Nass, a Whitewater Republican, is co-chairman of the Joint Committee for the Review of Administrative Rules.

The joint committee could recommend the Legislature block the rule, or seek changes. The legislative session ends March 22. If the Legislature doesn’t demand time-consuming changes, the DNR could have the rule in place by fall, he said.

Rep. Joel Kitchens, a Republican who represents affected areas of Kewaunee and Door counties, said he would push to keep the rule intact, noting that it would allow variances for small farms with limited land for manure spreading. Tourism in some areas has suffered because of publicity about water problems, Kitchens said.

The rule is designed to address longstanding problems of drinking water tainted by bacteria and other pathogens that cause serious illnesses in parts of the state where millions of gallons of manure are spread on fields each year.

Bedrock fractured

Well water is usually drawn from aquifers protected from pollution by bedrock, but in a long swath of eastern and southwestern Wisconsin that bedrock is fractured and porous. Especially in places with shallow topsoil and little clay, rain can carry manure into ground water in a few hours.

Even with 18 feet of topsoil, pollutants reach drinking water within 24 hours in places like Kewaunee County near Green Bay. State studies have concluded that 50 feet of topsoil may not be enough to keep water free of dangerous pathogens. The regulations approved by the board set limits for 20 feet or less.

For years, about one-third of tested wells in Kewaunee County have been contaminated, and recent tests have found twice that rate.

The proposed rule would limit manure spreading on fields depending on the depth of bedrock and the presence of sinkholes and other conduits for pollutants. Limits would be set in Brown, Calumet, Dodge, Door, Fond du Lac, Kenosha, Kewaunee, Manitowoc, Milwaukee, Outagamie, Ozaukee, Racine, Walworth, Washington and Waukesha counties.

The same type of bedrock is found in southern and western Wisconsin, but there has been less study in those areas and industry representatives resisted their inclusion.

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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.