Wisconsin Proposes New Water Rules

Water pollution is unarguably one of Wisconsin’s biggest environmental problems. The state prides itself on clean lakes and rivers, yet many Wisconsinites are appalled at the findings in a recent report by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). In a report, the DNR disclosed Wisconsin’s inability to enforce laws protecting drinking water due to a number of pollutants contaminating lakes and rivers. The pollutants are generated by concentrated animal feeding operations, also known as CAFOs.

The cursory dumping of waste by CAFOs is an ongoing problem. The report cites five recent incidents in which Wisconsin CAFOs leaked harmful pollutants into water wells. Records show that the DNR took no action for months after the occurrences. And in Kewaunee County, authorities discovered that 30 percent of the county’s wells were contaminated with pollutants associated with animal waste.

Used as fertilizer, animal waste contains nutrients that promote plant growth. It can cause harm, however, when the waste is leaked into nature. An example is excessive algae blooms that thrive on the surfaces of bodies of water. The fertilizer encourages the blooms to grow profusely, thus blocking out needed sunlight from entering the water. The lack of light causes plants to produce less oxygen, which ultimately kills many organisms. Within the last 10 years, out of the total 558 violations by private industries and sewage treatments, the DNR cited on 33 for actions considered serious enough by agency policies. The pollutants generated by various industries are dangerous not only to humans, but also to the environment as well.

The DNR is currently suffering from inadequate staffing and heavy turnover, which may be partially responsible for gaps in enforcement. Full-time staffing for the DNR has been on the decline since the 1990s. In addition, other water pollution programs have been losing staff since the 2008 recession. Besides staffing problems, monetary issues are challenging too. The DNR typically collects $5 to $7 million in fees annually, but the agency keeps less than $90,000 each year. The rest of the money goes into the state’s general fund.

Another problem adding to Wisconsin’s water worries is the lack of attention this issue receives. Due to the agency’s poor record-keeping, there is no way to determine how often violations lead to action taken by law enforcement. Even though the DNR has increased the number of inspections it conducts, the quality of the inspections are questionable. The DNR often conducts inspections much earlier or right after a permit renewal. In most cases, the DNR is unable to shut down CAFOs even if they find that the company has violated any rules. Although average inspection numbers have increased from 2010 to 2014, less than half of Wisconsin CAFOs were inspected at least two times during the five year permit term, which was the state’s initial goal. Despite all this, DNR secretary Cathy Stepp advocates for even lower standards: inspections once every five years- the minimum national standard.

DNR spokesman Jim Dick explained, “the change may mean fewer opportunities for the department to have contact with permit holders and, when there are problems, learn about them early enough to informally obtain compliance with regulations without formal enforcement action.”

To fix the problem, the DNR needs to act on the severity of the issue at hand and take the steps necessary to make changes. Tressie Kamp, a Midwest Environmental Advocate, stated that, “[it’s] clear that we’re just not doing enough to protect our state’s water resources. Safe water is too important to bet on industries maintaining compliance. . . .” The DNR has already introduced temporary restrictions that they expect companies to follow voluntarily, such as reducing the use of manure. But the lawmaking process for new regulations could take months, possibly years, ultimately leaving the health of Wisconsinites at risk.

[Source: Wisconsin State Journal ]

This is a super interesting article. I'm into environmental stuff and I wasn't aware that Wisconsin was facing these big issues. – Sergio Perez , Madison East High School (2016-08-20 11:40)
Very clear, succinct, informative writing style! I had no idea how poorly regulated the dumping of waste by CAFOs has been, especially with the poor record-keeping. It's great that you're bringing attention to this! – Bea Jimenez` , UW Madison` (2016-08-20 11:44)