WI Supreme Court Rules On DNR Authority, From Hancock To Kewaunee County

I still recall the woman, in the 1990s, holding the jar of cloudy and unappealing looking water taken from her kitchen tap in Kewaunee County prior to driving to the Madison office of her state assemblyman. What she made clear in the office of Representative Lary Swoboda was the harmful impact the water might have on her children. Her desire for an answer to clean water came to mind, again, as the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled this past week about the power a state agency does have to impact state regulations.

In what can only be called a truly tremendous victory for science, the environment, and the authority of experts in state agencies to craft rules that work for all residents, the Court strongly affirmed the Department of Natural Resources has the authority to place permit restrictions on large livestock farms and high-capacity wells in order to protect the state’s water.

The plight of homeowners in Kewaunee County has long made for state headlines. Over the years county residents banded together and asked the DNR to review its approval of a large farming operation’s permit because it did not require groundwater monitoring or set limits on the number of animals. It was reported that about half the private wells in the town where the farm is located are contaminated.

The Court decision, written by Justice Jill Karofsky, for the majority found the DNR “had the explicit authority” to impose both permit conditions in order to “assure compliance” with limitations on discharged waste and groundwater protection standards.

Such concerns and complaints about groundwater were not new to me when working in Swoboda’s office. I was born in the Central Sands area of the state. The clean water of Waushara County was eyed by bottled water giant Perrier for a high-capacity pumping station on state land surrounding Mecan Springs. I add, to underscore the dread among locals about the proposal, that location was one of Wisconsin’s most renowned trout streams.

A decade ago there was much concern regarding manure runoff from a proposed nearly 5,000 cow farm that would have resided close to Coloma in the western part of the county. In addition to runoff issues, it was the estimate from the corporation that water usage at the facility was estimated to be about 52.5 million gallons per year that brought a united front of opposition.

The desire for stronger state regulations concerning Richfield Dairy brought many locals to meetings and in heated conversations with state lawmakers. It was, then, in that light a broader court contest emerged regarding the DNR’s approval of eight high-capacity well applications made by farmers in the Central Sands region between 2014 and 2015.

This past week Justice Rebecca Dallet wrote in the court’s majority opinion that the state Legislature “has granted the DNR the broad but explicit authority to consider the environmental effects of a proposed high capacity well.”

Pine Lake in Hancock, in Waushara County, 2016. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel files.

I fondly recall biking to this lake as a teenager, and though not knowing how to swim, loving to wade about and cool off. As an adult, it became clear that the groundwater concerns from locals were not just irrational fears, as the picture demonstrates. Over the years I heard first-hand the accounts of new homeowners needing to go deeper when digging a well. My dad’s second well, located near our garden plot, went dry when I was a young adult.

While the past two years have allowed for Hancock lakes to be very full, that does not diminish the data about the groundwater and the impact of high capacity wells in the area. The need to better regulate the permits is a necessity, given that such wells can withdraw more than 100,000 gallons of water a day from the ground.

Dad and Lary have both passed away, but I just know how pleased they would be with the Court’s rulings. Dad served 40 years as a Hancock Town Supervisor, trying to press in his low-key style the need to be mindful of natural resources. Lary, who served for 24 years in the Assembly, had wished for a more forceful ability to constrain farm runoffs into local streams.

The Supreme Court has now made it clear that Wisconsin’s waterways belong to the state’s residents.  

And so it goes.