Wisconsin DNR looks to expand manure restrictions

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Tony Evers' administration is taking the first steps toward restricting manure and fertilizer in areas prone to pollution, a move that could preserve water quality but cost farmers millions as they already are struggling with low milk prices and President Donald Trump's trade wars.

The state Department of Natural Resources last year imposed restrictions on manure-spreading in 15 northeastern Wisconsin counties in response to drinking water contamination in Kewaunee County. The limits are designed to prevent pathogens in manure from entering ground and surface water and vary depending on the depth of individual farms' topsoil.

Evers, a Democrat, declared 2019 the year of clean drinking water. He announced in July that he wanted to do more to address nitrates, a pollutant found in fertilizer and manure. He directed the DNR, a cabinet agency, to establish nitrate standards for soils most susceptible to contamination.

The department released a scope statement Wednesday outlining a potential administrative rule modeled after the northeastern Wisconsin standards. The new rule would impose restrictions above and beyond existing statewide standards on manure and fertilizer in "sensitive areas" with highly permeable soil.

Scope statements are broad summaries of rule proposals and are often devoid of detail; this one doesn't define or name any sensitive areas and doesn't discuss specific restrictions. It does include an estimate that the prohibitions could come with an annual total cost ranging from $50,000 to $5 million for all stakeholders, including farmers and supporting businesses.

Jennifer Giegerich, a lobbyist for the League of Wisconsin Conservation Voters, said the new restrictions would help address pollution in southwestern Wisconsin. The U.S. Agricultural Research Service and the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey released a study in August that found that 32 of 35 wells tested in Grant, Iowa and Lafayette counties contained fecal matter from humans or livestock.

"The current manure practices we have do not protect our drinking water," Giegerich said. "Expanding these protections to areas of the state with nitrate contamination problems is necessary."

The proposal could run into roadblocks with Republicans who control the Legislature. Farmers, a key GOP constituency, are already grappling with a host of problems, including an industry transition toward a factory farm model, plummeting milk prices and Trump's trade war tariffs. Nearly 700 dairy farms closed in Wisconsin last year. Total statewide net cash farm income in the state declined 22% between 2012 and 2017, according to data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Scott Manley, senior vice president of government relations for Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state's largest business group, said his organization is watching the proposal closely. He said the new restrictions could force livestock farmers to rent or buy more land for spreading. Some farmers could be forced to inject manure into the soil to prevent runoff, a more costly procedure than spreading, Manley added.

"There's a finite amount of land to spread manure, and when that supply shrinks, costs go up," Manley said.

Ann Kipper, the DNR's deputy division administrator for external services, stressed that costs are still undetermined since formal restrictions haven't been drafted and probably won't be finalized for months.

Stakeholders will get a chance to offer their input along the way, she said. The DNR board is expected to schedule the first public hearing on the proposal for October and the scope statement calls for at least three more hearings in spring 2021.

Still, state Sen. Steve Nass, a Whitewater Republican who co-chairs the Legislature's committee on administrative rules, is trying to slow down the process. As is his right as committee co-chair, he has ordered DNR officials to hold a public hearing on the scope statement before they ask the department's board to authorize work on the actual rule.

Nass aide Mike Mikkalsen said the scope statement lacks specifics and a hearing will give stakeholders a chance to learn more. He declined to say more, saying his office doesn't know enough about the proposal to comment.

Share this article: