Proposed water pollution rules facing a deluge of criticism
Conservation agents say cost would hurt farm-runoff
By DAVID SIDERS
Article courtesy of the Milwaukee
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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.