MADISON, Wis. — The state Department of Natural
Resources board overwhelmingly approved contentious new restrictions
Wednesday on manure spreading in eastern Wisconsin, saying it's time
to protect the region's drinking water.
board's unanimous vote marked a victory for environmentalists in
their tug-of-war with factory farms over groundwater contamination
in eastern Wisconsin, particularly in Kewaunee County, where a 2015
report found that more than a third of tested wells had unsafe
levels of nitrate and bacteria.
Board members praised the DNR for drafting the
rules and themselves for taking action.
"If you don't want clean water, move to another
state," board member Fred Prehn said. "This is a big deal for this
board to pass this."
The board vote doesn't mean the rules are in place
— far from it. The package would still need the approval of Gov.
Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature. The
Wisconsin Dairy Business Association and Wisconsin Manufacturers and
Commerce, both powerful lobbying forces in Madison, are pushing
against the rules, making the restrictions' fate unclear.
"It's important you just don't send these rules
over to the Legislature and let them do whatever they're going to
do," Jennifer Giegerich, a lobbyist for the League of Wisconsin
Conservation Voters, told the board before the vote. "I would hope
the board sends a strong message to the Legislature that time is up.
We have to protect water."
Walker spokeswoman Amy Hesenberg didn't
immediately reply to an email seeking comment on what the governor
might do with the rules. Mike Mikalsen, an aide to state Sen. Steve
Nass, co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules,
also didn't immediately reply to an email.
The DNR has been working on the regulations for
nearly two years in response to the drinking water contamination in
Kewaunee County. In addition to finding unsafe levels of nitrate and
bacteria in 34 percent of the tested wells, about 2 percent were
contaminated with E. coli, the 2015 report found.
The DNR last summer drafted rules that would have
applied statewide. Walker's office shared them with the dairy
industry, which balked at the potential cost. The regulations'
per-acre spreading limitations would have forced farmers to purchase
more land, industry groups said.
The agency came back with a scaled-down version
that limits how much manure farms in 15 eastern Wisconsin counties
can spread. The limits vary according to the depth of each farm's
topsoil. Farms with less than 2 feet of soil would be prohibited
from spreading any manure, a standard factory farms already follow.
The package also carves out zones around wells where manure couldn't
be spread. The agency estimates that 1.6 million acres of cropland
would be affected.
Factory farms wouldn't have to comply with the
restrictions for years. The limitations would be imposed on them
when they renew their pollution permits. Such permits last five
The revised rules were still a win for
environmentalists, especially since Walker's administration controls
the DNR. Still, they want the restrictions to apply statewide,
especially in southwestern Wisconsin. The dairy business association
and WMC, meanwhile, continue to maintain that famers would still
have to buy more land to spread all their manure, that soil depth
data is old and unreliable, and that the DNR hasn't proven current
water quality standards aren't working in eastern Wisconsin.
Two dozen people showed up at the board meeting to
speak about the rules. All of them spoke in support, although many
complained the regulations are too weak. Dick Swanson brandished a
bottle of brown water and a bottle of clear water at the podium as
"This is your decision today," he said, holding up
the two bottles. "This rule is not strong enough. We have too many
cows and not enough good land for spreading. You know that. I'm
shaking. I get so upset about that because the solution is so
simple. Stop the cows."
No representatives from the dairy business
association or WMC appeared to speak. Paul Zimmerman, a lobbyist for
the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, told the board that his group
supports the regulations. He told a reporter during a break that
farmers could adjust by putting down less manure per application or
seeking variances from the state.
"This is not to say to a bunch of Kewaunee County
farmers 'you're out of business tomorrow,'" Zimmerman said.