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Proposed water pollution rules facing a deluge of criticism

Conservation agents say cost would hurt farm-runoff fight

Article courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
September 4, 2001

Proposed Wisconsin water pollution rules labeled the most far-reaching ever are being attacked by county government conservationists who warn that the proposal could cripple efforts to control agricultural runoff.

"I won't even attempt to enforce . . . something so embarrassing," said Don Franke, La Crosse County director of land conservation.

For years, conservationists have pressured lawmakers to insist on broad rules to control the runoff that can pollute the state's rivers and lakes, about 200 of which the Department of Natural Resources considers too dirty to support aquatic life and too unsafe for swimming.

The latest version of proposed rules, written by the state Agriculture Department and backed by the 46,000-member Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, is not worth enforcing, conservationists said.

Under the proposal, farmers would become eligible for more extensive anti-pollution reimbursements, a move conservationists said would mean government would spend too much public money to reimburse a small group of farmers. That, in turn, would hobble plans for widespread farm pollution controls, which would not have money available, the conservation agents believe.

Preview of coming fight

In what could be a preview of a months-long battle to come, an association that represents government land conservationists in all 72 Wisconsin counties voted unanimously in August to fight the proposal.

Anti-pollution programs, which the rules would put in place, "can't afford the rules as written," and conservationists would "not be able to do their jobs," said Rebecca Baumann, executive director of the Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association.

The proposed rules would allow payments to farmers who maintain, not just install, anti-pollution devices such as buffers along stream banks and drainage strips in fields. They would also allow reimbursement to farmers who own land that could not be farmed because of such measures.

"Are you going to pay a guy to clean out his barnyard? Are you going to pay him to mow the grass?" asked Russ Rasmussen, DNR runoff management section chief.

State agriculture department and farm bureau officials have defended one provision of the latest code revision - paying farmers who lose crop revenue because of conservation measures. That is fair because farmers must pay taxes on their unproductive property, they said.

"Farmers aren't getting rich," said Paul Zimmerman, the farm bureau's director of governmental relations.

However, conservationists said money used to reimburse farmers for maintaining anti-pollution measures, rather than creating more of them, would drain already limited funds and could keep new anti-pollution measures from being started elsewhere.

One such conservationist, Bill Hafs in Brown County, said starting to reimburse farmers for maintaining anti-pollution measures would essentially create a program to pay farmers to not pollute.

"Giving farmers every dime for (building) a manure pit? I just don't understand," Hafs said.

Government conservationists in Waukesha, Buffalo, Burnett, Brown and La Crosse counties all criticized the latest draft of the proposal in recent interviews, as did state Department of Natural Resources workers, environmentalists and even farmers, who stand to gain most from expanded rules.

David Wegner, a Jefferson County farmer, said the rules would allow more extensive reimbursement for pollution-control measures installed at his 500-acre dairy farm.

"It's like living under welfare," he said of the government reimbursements.

The proposed rules would regulate everything from how farmers plant corn to how they spread manure.

Environmentalists and conservationists have pushed since the 1970s for state standards to keep runoff from diverse sources such as golf courses, parking lots and farms from polluting the state's rivers and lakes.

Environmentalists brought polluted runoff to the front of the environmental platform in the 1970s with studies that showed agricultural runoff could be more hazardous than industrial waste to Wisconsin's streams and groundwater.

But since state lawmakers required in 1997 that expanded anti-pollution rules be drafted, proposals have been rewritten so often that many county conservationists are now balking at something they once pressured lawmakers to require.

Also, conservationists and the DNR have locked horns with the agriculture department over who should pay to carry out the proposal. The DNR and agriculture department estimate the expanded protections could cost $584 million to $934 million to carry out over 10 years.

State agriculture department officials said the proposed rules were changed to conform with a state law requiring the state to shoulder part of the cost of stopping farm pollution. But conservationists said the law does not require farmers to be so heavily reimbursed.

Baumann said the intent of the law is to curb pollution from many farms, which she said would be difficult if the state requires individual farmers to be paid more. "The intent of the Legislature is being lost," she said.

Still, some state officials insist that county programs would have enough money and flexibility to clean up their counties' farms. And both Dave Jelinski, director of the Bureau of Land and Water Resource Management at the state agriculture department, and the DNR's Rasmussen agreed that establishing the proposed rules is so important it should not be overshadowed by a debate about specific requirements.

Rather be left alone

Confused by all of the bureaucratic haggling, Wegner, the Jefferson County farmer, said he wishes the state would just leave his farm alone.

Through cost-sharing measures already in place, the state paid Wegner about 70% of the cost of installing rain gutters and a drainage system at his farm in the Town of Concord. That system, like others, stops rain and melting snow from carrying animal and chemical waste from Wegner's farm to nearby streams.

Wegner said he could not otherwise have afforded the system but said he does not think the state should pay him to maintain it. Taking care of the land his family has owned for more than a century is just the cost of farming, he said.

He said he voluntarily does not till much of his hilly field and is careful not to spread manure near water. But environmentalists have said those voluntary measures are not enough.

Todd Ambs, executive director of the River Alliance of Wisconsin, said some form of state rules must adopted so farmers know what anti-pollution measures are required.

However, Ambs, who also served on an advisory committee to help write the rules, said he is worried that too few dollars will be left to clean up other farms.

Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Sept. 4, 2001.
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