Department Natural Resources toughens standards manure spreading

Department of Natural Resources toughens standards for manure spreading

The Department of Natural Resources took a major step on Wednesday to toughen standards for manure spreading after years of complaints over polluted wells and pressure from interest groups that have been pushing officials to protect Wisconsin’s most vulnerable soils.

The Natural Resources Board voted 7-0 to add new restrictions on spreading across eastern Wisconsin — a region prone to manure contamination of groundwater and drinking water.

The action is the first big step by the administration of Gov. Scott Walker to toughen regulatory powers to control pollution tied to agricultural practices, but the measure still faces funding shortages and an uncertain fate in the Legislature.

The regulations — recommended by staff of the DNR — target 15 counties on the state’s eastern border, including metropolitan Milwaukee.

IMG_6384But they are especially intended for farms in the northeast, where cattle populations have grown, especially among large livestock operators, and geology creates conditions where manure can trickle through soil and taint groundwater.

Manure — a prized fertilizer — has been a flash point of controversy for years, with concerns tied to odors and runoff pollution into streams and groundwater contamination. The new restrictions target groundwater, and DNR officials concluded they needed stronger oversight because existing rules have fallen short.

Despite sharp divisions for years between environmental groups and farm organizations, both sides attending the meeting on Wednesday offered qualified support.

Conservation groups called the rules “modest,” “reasonable” and a “good first step” but called for even tougher standards in the future.

Environmental groups all called on the DNR to expand stricter spreading requirements in other areas of the state, especially in southwestern Wisconsin, which has similar geological characteristics.

But Jennifer Giegerich of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters said her group is worried about how the Republican-controlled Legislature will react to the changes.

She said two groups that did not attend the meeting — the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce — have lobbied lawmakers to weaken the regulations.

“Send a message that the time is up,” Giegerich said.

The dairy business group said it supported the DNR’s approach but wanted some changes. For example, the group said limits on spreading should not be imposed on farms without reliable soil maps that show the true depth of the soil.

“Science has identified groundwater challenges in portions of eastern Wisconsin, so it makes sense to take additional steps to protect people’s health and our environment,” John Holevoet, director of government affairs for the Dairy Business Association, said in an email.

A large farm operator, Don Niles of Casco in Kewaunee County, also backed the limits.

And a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, the largest farm organization in the state with 46,000 members, said his group supports the rules.

The Farm Bureau is “committed to get this rule package done this session,” said Paul Zimmerman. “But we can’t stop with passage here today. We need to get this implemented.”

The requirements include a ban on manure spreading on land with 2 feet or less of top soil over bedrock. In these counties, bedrock can be riddled with cracks and fissures.

Also, the rules would limit spreading practices in areas with 20 feet or less of soil. Other restrictions include a ban on spreading within 250 feet of a private well or 1,000 feet of a municipal water system.

The brunt of the regulations would fall on the state’s largest farms — those with 700 or more adult cattle. Concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, would be required to comply with the regulations through their wastewater permit, which must be renewed every five years.

But board members expressed concerns that such a timeline was too slow and pressed the agency to prod large farms to move faster.

Smaller farms that do not need a state wastewater permit would be required to comply with the rules, but in some cases only if there is adequate funding from the state to share 70% of the cost.  Agency officials say they do not have adequate funding to meet all such requests.

The regulations now go to the governor and then to the Legislature. GOP lawmakers have shown little appetite in putting new restrictions on agricultural and manufacturing sectors since taking power in 2011.

Rep. Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay), whose district has real estate highly vulnerable to groundwater pollution, said he hopes lawmakers will not reject the rules.

“No one thinks it’s perfect, but with the ag and conservation community on the same page, that’s a pretty big deal,” Kitchens said.

Amber Meyer Smith of Clean Wisconsin said the Legislature’s action will be telling.

“It will show us where Wisconsin’s priorities are,” she said. “If we can’t step up now, we are really telling the people of the state that we are making a choice against a basic right of clean drinking water.”

The impetus for the board’s action has been longstanding reports of polluted wells tied to manure spreading.

An added push: A petition in 2014 by six environmental groups to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calling on the DNR to investigate water and well contamination in Kewaunee County, east of Green Bay.

The county has been the home of the most vivid cases and where cows far outnumber the human population. Last year, state figures show cattle numbers since 1983 have jumped 62% to 97,000 at a time when the statewide bovine population fell 20%.

In February 2017, scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and others used DNA to learn whether viruses and bacteria in water samples from wells in the county were human or bovine.

The researchers found higher levels of contamination from cattle during wet weather — when manure can seep into the ground faster. But the results showed human waste from sanitary systems also polluted wells.


Source: Journal Sentinel

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