MADISON — A judge has restored Wisconsin's authority to protect water quality after ruling it was improperly given up in a settlement with a dairy industry group.
Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge William Pocan ruled last week to restore the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources' authority to enforce water quality standards by requiring big dairy farms to not leak pollutants into public waters, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.
A department spokesman declined to comment on the decision.
The case stems from the agency's efforts a couple of years ago to have dairy operations take additional steps to improve feed storage and areas where calves are housed.
Rain carries nutrients and pollutants from soil, manure and animal feed into lakes and streams, which leads to unnatural growths of weeds and bacteria that can close beaches and harm fish. Nutrient runoff can also pose health risks to drinking water.
But the state agency agreed to stop asking dairy farms to improve feed storage and calf hutches in a 2017 settlement with the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association. The association complained that it was too costly to cover feed bunkers to prevent rain from carrying pollutants downhill, arguing that the state agency was overstepping its authority.
Four conservation groups challenged the settlement in court.
"This decision was important because it was confirmation that the DNR can't change the law through settlement agreements with special interest groups," said Sarah Geers, an attorney representing the conservation groups, which include Clean Water Action Council of Northeast Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.
Geers called Pocan's decision a victory for clean water and government transparency.