Proposed system would further burden water protection program

MADISON — A new proposal easing permit requirements for large-scale livestock operations could increase the already high environmental and health impacts of factory farms, according to testimony delivered today at public hearings held by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in Fitchburg.

“The DNR currently lacks the resources necessary to effectively enforce water protection plans designed to protect public health and preserve the quality of our lakes, rivers, streams, and groundwater,” said Ezra Meyer, water resources specialist at Clean Wisconsin, in testimony delivered at the hearing. “While many farmers are great stewards of land, the ones who aren’t represent the biggest source of pollution for our state’s waters. Bolstering enforcement of Wisconsin’s water protection program should be the primary focus of any new policy.”

The proposed system would alter how the DNR issues water protection permits, which contain conditions for the storage, handling and spreading of manure. Under the current system, livestock operations with more than 1000 animal units (about 700 milking cows), as well as farms with fewer than 700 cows that have a history of manure management problems, must apply for an individual permit.

The proposed system would allow large-scale livestock operations to apply for a “general permit” that would be generic to operations across the state.

“Farms in the state are as varied as the land they cultivate, and the best system for safely storing and spreading manure differs from farm to farm and should be evaluated on an individual basis,” said Meyer.

Overspreading manure and manure spills pollute Wisconsin’s lakes, rivers, streams and groundwater. Wisconsin has seen manure spills increase from 63 recorded between 2000 and 2005 and 167 recorded between 2005 and 2010. In 2009, one incident left the Kewaunee River flooded with 200,000 pounds of manure, killing $250,000 worth of trout and salmon.

Just last year, Wisconsin drew negative national attention when a New York Times story covered residents in Brown County falling ill from contaminated drinking water that resulted from improperly spread manure on large farms.

Due to a lack of funding and resources, the DNR checks the compliance of large-scale dairy operations, on average, less than once every five years.

“Manure spills and overspreading exact a heavy toll on our economy and our health, with reports of fish kills and contaminated wells skyrocketing in recent years,” said Meyer. “When you can’t trust the quality of water you drink or swim in, it’s not time to deregulate, it’s time to focus on accountability.”