Under pressure from citizens and environmental groups, state officials took a step this week in advancing regulations that would impose stricter controls on manure spreading on Wisconsin's most vulnerable soils.
The Department of Natural Resources released plans for new rules to limit manure use in certain zones where animal waste poses a greater chance of polluting streams and groundwater.
Currently, Wisconsin has uniform standards for manure spreading, but if the changes are made, farmers in some regions would be required to limit their spreading more.
'This is the first time that we would have different practices for specific areas,' said Russ Rasmussen, who is leading DNR efforts on manure issues.
The measures are an outgrowth of a task force of citizens, farmers and public officials in northeastern Wisconsin, which met for months. After completing work, they recently called for limits on manure spreading and more government oversight of farming practices.
The initial reaction from two environmental groups and the state's largest farm group was generally positive. But both sides said they will be watching how the process plays out, which could color their opinions.
Another key player, the Dairy Business Association, which is aligned with large dairy farms, milk processors and other businesses, declined to comment.
DNR officials set up the task force after six environmental groups petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in October 2014 to investigate water and well contamination in dairyintensive Kewaunee County. They said regulators failed to protect drinking water despite having authority to regulate wells, groundwater and the practices of large-scale dairy farms.
Large farms — known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs — have a minimum of 700 mature cows. Kewaunee County has 16 CAFOs, the third highest in the state. The average number of cows on a farm in Wisconsin is 129, according to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.
Animal waste — especially involving farms with thousands of cows — is an increasingly volatile issue in the dairy state. The flashpoint is Kewaunee County, where thin soils, fractured bedrock and an abundance of cattle have created conditions where waste has polluted wells or surface waters.
In December, 34 percent of wells tested in the county failed to meet health standards for drinking water, according to a study by the U.S. Agricultural Research Service and the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
'We are taking this from a county level to a state level and amping up the discussion,' Rasmussen said. The DNR will ask the state Natural Resources Board at a meeting in Ashland on Aug. 3 to approve a scope statement - the first step in Wisconsin's rulemaking process - that spells out the themes for the new regulations.
The document calls for identifying areas where the thickness of soils and underlying geology make it prone to manure pollution. The rules would then establish manure handling standards for the area.
Kewaunee County's karst topography, where cracks in bedrock have threatened groundwater, is an example.
But Rasmussen said zones could be designated in other areas of the state.
The rules could include reduced manure spreading and timing fertilizer and manure applications.
Another requirement would make setback requirements for spreading near public and private wells.
In the months ahead, Paul Zimmerman, lobbyist with the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, said negotiations will focus on the details. For example, moderating manure use might mean spreading the same amount, but splitting it up over several days.
There are likely to be areas 'where maybe we should not be applying manure at all,' he said.
Zimmerman agreed there is an issue in northeastern Wisconsin, but downplayed the problem elsewhere.
'It isn't like this has been a widespread issue across areas of the state for a long time,' he said. 'We are not objecting to the scope statement. We understand the need to have this discussion.'
Wisconsin's process for writing new rules requires public hearings, input from stakeholder groups and approval by the Legislature - a process that can take years. Rasmussen said the DNR hopes lawmakers take it up before the end of the 2018 legislative session.
Environmental groups, which have been critical of the DNR under Gov. Scott Walker, said they were cautiously optimistic. The work groups that met in Kewaunee County 'talked about the need to move away from a one-size-fitsall, so this is definitely a step toward what we were discussing,' said Tressie Kamp, an attorney for Midwest Environmental Advocates. 'I think there are folks who were hoping that this would have happened years ago.'
In an email, Elizabeth Wheeler, an attorney for Clean Wisconsin, said: 'We think that it is absolutely appropriate and long overdue to revise the CAFO regulations to address groundwater contamination. Whether the final rule goes far enough to address the problems in Kewaunee and elsewhere in the state is yet to be seen.'