MADISON, Wis. (AP) — 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.
The 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 years.
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 he spoke.
"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.