FOX 11 Investigates concerns over new DNR rules on farmers

DNR picture showing violation in spreading manure on a farm field in Kewaunee County, manure spread within 25' of wetland.

KEWAUNEE COUNTY (WLUK) -- New rules from the Department of Natural Resources aimed to prevent groundwater contamination from farmers spreading manure are one step closer to being put into action. Fifteen eastern Wisconsin counties will be affected, including Kewaunee County where scientists found groundwater to be worst they've ever seen in the state.

“I think the department heard the cries of the community,” said William Bruins, a member of the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board.

The DNR formed work groups several years ago made up of environmentalists, farmers, regulatory staff and DNR staff. Their mission was to look for ways to limit the amount of groundwater contamination in Kewaunee and other counties.

Last month the Natural Resources Board approved new rules based on the work group recommendations.

“I think they represent a very good compromise in protecting the health of our citizens without crippling agriculture,” said State Rep. Joel Kitchens, R-Sturgeon Bay.

Compromise? Not everyone agreed with that assessment.

“Not even close to what the work groups wanted,” said Dick Swanson, a homeowner in Algoma who took part in the process.

Swanson says the final recommendations were “watered down” to benefit the powerful agriculture industry in the state. Wisconsin after all is the Dairyland State. More restrictions would be costly for CAFOs, concentrated animal feeding operations, or mega farms. And Kewaunee County has 16 of them that make up most of the 99,000 cows in the county.

“So when they talk about a consensus being sent forward it isn't what we wanted,” said Swanson.

Swanson says the DNR-formed workgroups had environmentalists outnumbered.

“You're saying the DNR actually manipulated the outcome?” FOX 11 Investigates asked Swanson.

“I'm saying it is manipulated. It was a set-up if you ask me,” said Swanson.

Environmentalist and homeowners with contaminated wells wanted a ban on manure spreading on soil depths of up to 20 feet. That's what the scientists examining the conditions in Kewaunee County last summer suggest is safe. Instead the recommendation is no spreading on soil depths less than 2 feet, with limits up to 20 feet.

The problem is the shallow soil depths allow liquid manure to easily seep into the bedrock below. And that Silurian bedrock is fractured and doesn’t stop the flow into the groundwater.

“You don't think the state is actually doing enough to clean up the water?” FOX 11 Investigates asked Jodi Parins, an environmentalist from Lincoln Township in Kewaunee County, where soil depths are minimal.

“No. Absolutely not. I don't think they're strict enough at all,” said Parins.

“It's something is better than nothing,” Parins said of the new rules passed.

Parins also took part in the workgroups. Parins and two dozen others spoke out the meeting before last month's vote. She says scientific evidence--paid for by the DNR-- wasn't finalized in time to be included in coming up with the recommendations.

“The DNR needed to get something to the governor so we pretty much cut bait and went with what we had,” said Parins.

Don Niles represents a group of large farmers in Kewaunee County. He’s president of Peninsula Pride Farms, more than 50 farms in Kewaunee and southern Door Counties. He was also part of the workgroups.

“I can't tell you what anybody else's perspective should be, but I can tell you I was there for all those meetings for two and a half years. Certainly, we didn't all agree on everything and you're not going to, but I think we came out with something we can all live with and agree with,” said Niles.

Niles believes the new rules will have an impact.

“But I think innovation and creativity, collaboration between farmers is really what's going to move us forward,” said Niles.

FOX 11 Investigates discovered Niles own farm was cited by the DNR in October for violating manure spreading requirements. Niles called the violation an embarrassment, that was quickly corrected. No fine was issued.

Overall the number of such violations are down in the state, but the DNR admits it doesn't have enough money to properly monitor and enforce the rules.

“There are staffing issues in the counties in that their numbers have been decreased, grant numbers also decreased, so that's a no, we don't have adequate funding,” said Maryanne Lowndes with the DNR at the January board meeting.

Since the board approved the manure spreading rule changes, the DNR has approved new permits for spreading more manure and adding cows on a couple farms in Kewaunee County.

All sides indicate the state is relying on voluntary efforts to achieve cleaner groundwater, pointing out “no one wants polluted drinking water.” And yet that's what many in Kewaunee County have now.

The board approved rules are now set to be reviewed by the governor and the legislature to recommend any modifications. Implementation is expected this summer.

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