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Wisconsin DNR scraps groundwater protection effort; rulemaking process blamed

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After two years of work, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has abandoned efforts to protect drinking water from nitrate, the state’s most prevalent contaminant.

In 2019, the governor and the DNR’s policy board approved parameters for the agency to draft new regulations on the use of manure and fertilizer in areas of the state where groundwater is vulnerable to contamination.

The rulemaking process typically takes 30 months and requires signoff from the Legislature.

After years of reports that recycling was a bust, 2021 is shaping up to be a boom year for a business that is, by nature, cyclical.

On Wednesday, the DNR informed its advisory committee that it is scrapping the effort, saying in an email that “the statutory process and associated firm timelines established by the Legislature do not allow adequate time for the department to complete this proposed rule.”

The email was released by environmental groups that had been part of the advisory group and blamed Republican lawmakers for changes to the rulemaking process.

Under the law’s timeline, the rule was to go to the policy board and governor this fall before undergoing legislative review this winter.

Midwest Environmental Advocates called the announcement “a devastating blow for many rural Wisconsin families” — especially those in the southwest corner and Central Sands region where shallow topsoil and fractured bedrock have led to widespread groundwater pollution.

Clean Wisconsin said the rulemaking process is “driven by special interests” and imposes arbitrary deadlines and cost limits that ultimately derailed the process.

“Instead of working to ensure Wisconsinites have safe water, the Legislature created a system of barriers to developing public health protections, undermining the DNR and preventing the agency from reducing water pollution,” the group said in a statement

The plan to create targeted standards, which would go above and beyond statewide regulations in those sensitive areas, had widespread public support but drew fire from groups like the Dairy Business Association and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce.

Those industry groups said the DNR had not identified any impaired waters and hasn’t demonstrated that current standards have been implemented.

The DNR estimated it would cost businesses and local governments about $1 million a year to implement the new rule. The cost for the average dairy farm would be about $30,000.

The cost of replacing contaminated wells could exceed $440 million, according to the department’s analysis. That’s on top of $9 million private well owners have already spent replacing wells and the $40 million municipalities have spent to remove nitrate from public water supplies.

DNR officials did not respond Wednesday or Thursday to questions about the decision.

In his email to the advisory committee, agricultural runoff section chief Chris Clayton said the agency “will continue to work with you on the science and on land management approaches and practices that can help us address Wisconsin’s nitrate/groundwater/safe drinking water issues.”

Nitrate, which is associated with multiple ailments and can be fatal to infants, is Wisconsin’s most widespread groundwater contaminant and is increasing in extent and severity, according to a 2018 legislative report from the state’s Groundwater Coordinating Council.

About 1.7 million people in Wisconsin rely on private wells for drinking water, and the Department of Health Services estimates at least one in 10 Wisconsin wells has high levels of nitrate, which is considered hazardous, especially for pregnant women and infants.

Farm fertilizer and manure are the main sources of nitrate pollution, though faulty septic systems can also contribute to the problem.


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