MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources board granted the agency permission Tuesday to start drawing up contentious manure and fertilizer restrictions for areas prone to groundwater pollution.
The board gave the department the go-ahead on a 5-1 vote, despite concerns from the agricultural industry that the restrictions could cost farmers millions of dollars annually. It could be months before the department completes a draft. The final version of the regulations would be subject to legislative approval.
“This is going to be expensive,” board Chairman Fred Prehn said. “(But) the bottom line is, the public wants a solution.”
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has said he wants to do more to address nitrates, which are found in fertilizer and manure. About 10% of the state’s private wells have nitrate levels exceeding 10 milligrams per liter, according to the DNR. State health officials recommend that people avoid long-term consumption of water with nitrate levels over that mark. The governor directed the DNR to establish nitrate standards for soils susceptible to contamination.
The department released an broad outline of the new restrictions in September. The proposal would impose restrictions similar to northeastern Wisconsin’s regulations on manure and fertilizer in as-yet undefined “sensitive areas” with highly permeable soil in other parts of the state.
DNR officials imposed restrictions last year on manure-spreading in 15 northeastern Wisconsin counties in response to drinking water contamination in Kewaunee County. Restrictions vary depending on the the depth of individual farms’ topsoil.
“This (proposal) is much bigger than Kewaunee County,” Prehn said. “It’s a serious, long, expensive undertaking.”
Farmers fear the additional regulations could force them to buy or rent additional land to spread excess manure or to inject manure into the soil to prevent runoff, which is more costly than just spreading it. The DNR’s outline indicated that the prohibitions could cost stakeholders a combined $50,000 to $5 million annually.
Tension over the regulations came to a head last month in southwestern Wisconsin when Lafayette County officials tried to stifle public discussion about an ongoing well pollution study.
They went so far as to draw up a resolution warning that journalists who report on the study’s findings without quoting from a county news release verbatim would be prosecuted and county officials who spoke about the findings without permission from a review board would be punished. The county board tabled the resolution amid a firestorm of criticism.
Aaron Stauffacher, a lobbyist for the Dairy Business Association, tried to talk the board out of moving ahead on the regulations, saying the DNR hasn’t shown current statewide standards on nitrates are too lax.
“(Nitrate pollution) was created over generations through a variety of different land uses,” he said. “We can not simply correct this problem by creating targeted performance standards that will only apply to a small percentage of farms and agricultural land.”
Scott Laeser, water program director for conservation group Clean Wisconsin, told the board the rules will be costly but the people are already spending millions on health problems caused by nitrate pollution.
“It’s time for a new approach, for new rules and new resources that aspire to reduce nitrate pollution in our wells and promise a future where safe drinking water flows into homes that don’t have it today,” he said.
Board member Bill Bruins cast the lone dissenting vote. He said the proposal has set the state’s agricultural community on edge and he doesn’t think it’s fair to characterize farmers as the main source of nitrates in groundwater.