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Wisconsin's agricultural bounty is possible thanks in part to the state's voluminous supply of freshwater. At the same time, the use of this resource to grow crops and nourish livestock poses risks to the quality of these waters. The effects of agricultural practices on the state's rivers, lakes, wetlands and groundwater can come by way of soil erosion, water overuse, chemicals and livestock manure.

Manure is a particularly ample concern among roughly 300 of the state's largest livestock farms. They're commonly called CAFOs, which stands for concentrated animal feeding operation.

As their name suggests, CAFOs are intensive livestock operations that embody a long-term trend toward larger and more cost-efficient farms in the United States. Housing a large number of animals in one location allows these farms to spend less per animal on costs like feed. In Wisconsin, CAFOs are defined as livestock and poultry feeding operations with at least 1,000 animal units, roughly equal to 1,000 beef cattle, 700 milking cows or 125,000 broiler chickens.

The number of CAFOs in the state — 90% of which are dairy operations — has risen every year since 2005.

Their rise has concentrated the economic and environmental impact of Wisconsin's iconic dairy industry: In 2019, CAFOs represent about 3.5% of the state's dairy farms but are home to nearly 25% of its dairy cows.

With so many animals housed in one place, CAFOs produce huge volumes of manure every day that must be dealt with somehow. The most common practice is to spread this manure on farm fields near a CAFO in the spring and fall. The manure helps return nutrients to the soil for crop production, but it also has the potential to seep into groundwater and wash into streams and lakes. That's why CAFOs are regulated by the state under the federal Clean Water Act of 1972.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is statutorily responsible for enforcing federal clean water regulations in the state, and as part of that responsibility the agency issues permits that set rules for releasing pollutants into the state's waters.

The permit requirements vary by the type of polluter. To qualify for a permit, CAFOs must adhere to siting and engineering standards for the parts of their operation that risk fouling water. This includes manure storage structures, which have to be able to hold 6 months' worth of manure and often take the form of large open-air lagoons.

CAFOs, like all farms, are not allowed to release manure directly into streams or lakes and instead must find another way to dispose of it. Some build biodigesters that harness bacteria to produce methane for energy uses, but that's an expensive route that few operations take. Instead, most CAFOs opt to use the manure as crop fertilizer. They're required by the state to develop nutrient management plans that limit the amount of manure spread on any one field. They also have to keep manure away from wells and surface water.

There are a host of other stipulations for a CAFO permit, with some varying based on local conditions. For instance, bedrock conditions, such as the presence of porous karst, can complicate the permitting process by increasing the risk that manure could get into groundwater.

2016 review by the state's Legislative Audit Bureau found significant problems with the program's ability to keep up with its workload. One illustration of this issue: In 2017, one-third of CAFOs were operating under expired permits because of a permitting backlog. Two years later, the DNR has closed the gap somewhat but remains unable to keep up with oversight. Nearly a quarter of CAFOs were operating with expired permits in June 2019.

In addition to reviewing a prospective CAFO's permit application, which is often prepared under the guidance of a licensed third-party engineer, a DNR staff member must conduct a site visit prior to the application’s final approval, explained Raechelle Cline, a spokesperson for the agency. Additional site visits are required before a permit can be renewed every 5 years or whenever a CAFO is proposing an expansion or other changes to its facilities. However, due to the DNR's permitting backlog, CAFOs are allowed to operate with an expired permit.

As of June 2019, the DNR employs about 20 field and office staff who are tasked with permitting and enforcement of water pollution standards for the state's CAFOs. That includes 14 field staff who are responsible for reviewing permits and conducting site visits at CAFOs within their respective region.

The DNR's staffing goal, based on guidance from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is to have a 20:1 field staff-to-CAFO ratio. In theory, this level would allow each staff member enough time to review permits, conduct site visits, respond to emergencies like manure spills and conduct other enforcement duties. According to this benchmark, the program's staffing has been inadequate since 2011.

Whatever the responsibilities and availability of its regulators, the DNR outsources much of the job of ensuring permit compliance onto the CAFOs themselves. CAFOs are required to conduct daily, weekly and quarterly inspections of various parts of their operations and submit annual records of those inspections to the agency. The 2016 audit of the DNR's water pollution program found that the vast majority of these records, which had been recorded on paper calendars, were not being entered electronically by DNR staff, making for a major compliance blindspot.

In 2019, the agency moved to an electronic format for the calendars, a move Cline said could help speed up processing and aid in identifying areas of noncompliance. Additionally, on the heels of the 2016 audit, the agency moved much of its permitting process online.

The change "greatly improves efficiency for staff by improving accessibility, consistency and tracking," Cline noted. However, she said the DNR needs more staff to close the permitting backlog, improve spill response, conduct timely site visits and increase oversight of manure hauling and spreading.

A debate over how to fund more DNR staff

The DNR's staffing levels for CAFO permitting and enforcement has been one policy matter in the deliberations over Wisconsin's 2019-21 state budget. Where the funding for proposed new positions would come from shaped up to be a political sticking point.

The DNR's CAFO oversight program has long been largely subsidized by general state tax revenues. According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, staffing for the program cost the state nearly $2.2 million during its 2018-19 fiscal year. CAFOs are required to pay a $345 annual permit fee, but only $95 of is directed toward the DNR's oversight program. The rest goes toward the state's general fund, meaning the fees supported less than 2% of the program's cost during that fiscal year.

A proposal by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers to significantly increase CAFO permit fees to fund up to five new CAFO oversight positions at the DNR was rejected by the Republican-controlled state Legislature during its 2019 budget-writing session. The governor had proposed increasing annual fees to $660 and adding a new permit fee of $3,270 to be paid by CAFOs with active permits every 5 years.

Instead, the Legislature's budget committee, voting along party lines on June 11, 2019, approved adding four positions for CAFO oversight under the plan that mirrors a Republican-sponsored bill previously introduced in the state Senate. That plan would redirect all of the revenue from the current annual fees to the DNR for CAFO oversight. This would furnish the program a little over $100,000 in the 2019-20 fiscal year, enough to cover roughly 4% of its costs.

On the other hand, Gov. Evers' proposal would have raised on average around $400,000 annually for DNR oversight directly from CAFO permit fees, which would cover about 15% of its total costs.

Many other Wisconsin regulations are funded largely through fees on the regulated entities, including municipal water pollution oversight and workplace safety and financial regulations, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

DNR spokesperson Raechelle Cline noted in an email to WisContext that increased permit fees and additional positions would help the DNR reach its CAFO oversight standards, which for years have been bogged down by staffing shortages and turnover as the number of CAFOs in the state has steadily grown.

With the number of permitted CAFOs in Wisconsin expected to grow by a dozen or so year by year, Cline indicated that additional staff could help the DNR reach its goal of reducing the backlog of expired permits to 15% or less.

The Wisconsin Dairy Alliance, a lobby group that advocates primarily for dairy CAFOs and which formed immediately following the publication of Evers' budget proposal, has said the proposed fee increase would unnecessarily burden farming businesses that are already contending with a 5-year slump in milk prices.

"We're all struggling," said Cindy Leitner, president of the Wisconsin Dairy Alliance, in a May 31 interview on Wisconsin Public Television's Here & Now. "We're struggling to survive. Added fees aren't going to help."

Low milk prices are contributing to a record number of dairy farm closures in the state, though it is unclear how many dairy CAFOs have gone out of business since the price slump began in 2015 as their overall numbers have increased over the same time period.

The magnitude of Evers' proposed fee hikes for CAFO permits is one reason that Wisconsin's Green Fire, an advocacy group for evidence-based environmental policy, has voiced its support for such an increase. Fred Clark, a forester and former Democratic representative to the Assembly who is executive director of the group, said in a separate May 31 interview on Here & Now that he understands that CAFOs are dealing with the same economic headwinds as all dairy operations.

However, Clark pointed to Wisconsin’s neighbors in terms of their CAFO policies. "Most of those operations are selling somewhere between $5 and $10 million worth of milk every year," Clark said. "These are very large businesses. They're facing struggles in this economy. Absolutely. But the permit fee is the smallest of any of the surrounding states that also regulate dairy operations."

Leitner also questioned whether more CAFO oversight staff at the DNR is necessary.

"Do we need to have more positions?" Leitner asked on Here & Now. With 14 field staff responsible for oversight of about 300 CAFOs — a staff-to-CAFO ratio of nearly 22:1 — there should be more than enough time for staff to conduct site visits, review permits and enforce compliance, she said.

In fact, Leitner suggested DNR staff should be visiting CAFOs more often. From the Wisconsin Dairy Alliance's perspective, she said, "at least once a month [DNR staff] should be on the farm talking to the dairy [farmer] or talking to somebody about what they're doing, how they're doing it, how they can do it better and building that relationship so that we’re all looking toward no discharge in water."

Cline said the frequency of site visits is often dictated by complaints and evidence of noncompliance, which can eat up much of a field staff member's time.

"Operations with ongoing compliance issues are often inspected more frequently than two times per 5 years," Cline said. "Some of them are inspected multiple times a year."

Meanwhile, the responsibility of CAFOs in rural water contamination remains at the heart of these policy disputes.

Leitner pointed to research on well contamination in Kewaunee County, an area with many CAFOs and shallow, fractured bedrock, saying "50% of [contaminants] they found in wells came from bovine and 50% came from human [sources]."

Mark Borchardt, a microbiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture who conducted the study, said that interpretation of his research is not accurate. He said that, of the contaminated wells sampled, 44 had contaminants from a bovine source while 33 were contaminated by human sources and nine by both.

"All I can conclude," Borchardt said, "is that the two largest mammals on Kewaunee County's land surface are responsible for contamination," referring to cows and humans. Contamination by human waste usually comes from old or improperly functioning septic systems, Borchardt noted. He is in the midst of working with the Wisconsin Geological & Natural History Survey to identify the source of contamination in wells in three southwestern Wisconsin counties. The first stage of that research was announced complete in June 2019.

At the statewide level, Leitner said CAFOs are catching a disproportionate amount of blame for rural water contamination in Wisconsin.

"[The Wisconsin Dairy Association] believes to solve contamination of groundwater, all aspects of contamination need to be reviewed," Leitner said in a follow-up interview with WisContext. "Not just bovine, not just CAFOs. The well structure, septic systems, the heavy use of nitrates going back to the 1940s through today that continue to remain in the soil."

For his part, Clark agreed that all sources of water contamination need to be more seriously addressed by the state, including septic systems and smaller farms. Still, he pointed to the fact that the two proposals for additional DNR staff to regulate CAFOs would still largely be supported by all Wisconsin taxpayers.

This report was produced in a partnership between Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television. © Copyright 2019, Wisconsin Educational Communications Board and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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