Guest Column: Lack of compliance allowing industrial agriculture to pollute Wisconsin’s waters

Editor’s note: What follows is a series of e-mails between Greg Farnham, coordinator of the Rock River Trail Initiative, and Wisconsin State Rep. Steve Nass, on the topic of industrial agriculture and its effects on water quality in Wisconsin.

E-mail 1 (e-mail from Greg Farnham to state officials)

To our state elected officials of the Rock River Basin:

I encourage you and your staff to read the three parts of an excellent (and frightening) report on water quality and pollution in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

One of the reader comments for the first article is spot on (below), in my opinion. Pollution of our surface waters and groundwater is a non-point source problem caused by industrial agriculture.

The more the farmers and their political lobbies circle the wagons in defense of unsustainable practices and the more our county, state and federal elected representatives and agencies genuflect before the farm lobbies and postpone effective regulatory action to reduce polluted runoff of nutrients, sediment and manure and groundwater draw down, the worse our water problems will become.

Our state can have productive and profitable agriculture without befouling our waters, and that will require change in temperament and regulation. Without change, industrial agriculture will continue to pollute the Rock River and its tributaries, exhaust the supply of groundwater and contaminate the private wells of our residents.

We ask that you act in a responsible manner and take the lead in bringing about necessary change.

[The following is a reader comment in response to an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.]

If regulatory agencies never go after the non-point sources that are adding 80-90 percent of the phosphorus to our waterways, our water quality will never improve. They know where the problem is, they just refuse to address it. Until that changes, we just have to live with algae blooms on many of our lakes.”

E-mail 2 (response from Wisconsin State Rep. Steve Nass to Greg Farnham’s original e-mail)


Thank you for sharing your thoughts and the articles. I can assure you that the Wisconsin DNR [Department of Natural Resources] and DATCP [Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection] are constantly working to address agriculture’s impact on water quality and the environment. These are complex scientific and societal issues requiring a long-term focus on solutions by all interested parties.

The Legislature will certainly consider proposals on how best to address these challenges. However, it’s important to remember that Wisconsin’s farming community has always strived at being good stewards of our natural resources.

E-mail 3 (response from Greg Farnham to Steve Nass’ e-mail)

Thank you for your reply, Representative Nass.

I respectfully disagree with your conclusions, however, based on my 15 years of experience as a lake management district commissioner for Lake Sinissippi and the Rock River.

(1) I’m afraid that reality does not comport that DNR is constantly working to address agriculture’s impact on water quality and the environment.

DNR Deputy Secretary Matt Moroney spoke at a gathering of agricultural producers in February 2013 and is on record as stating that DNR is no longer a strong advocate on environmental issues. This regressive policy is reflected in the permissive issuance of wastewater discharge permits to CAFOs [concentrated animal feeding operations] without adequate oversight to ensure compliance and an unwillingness to take effective action to enforce laws designed to protect water quality — witness the egregious discharge violation by farmers that caused 1 million gallons of liquid manure to pollute the Little Eau Pleine River in Marathon County and which resulted in a trifling fine by DNR of $464!

After the failure of DNR to investigate and deal with manure runoff to the East Twin River in Kewaunee County, concerned citizens requested the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-Region 7 in Chicago to investigate the matter. The EPA inspector found the livestock CAFO was in violation of three provisions of the federal Clean Water Act.

(2) Nor do I find that DATCP is constantly working to address agriculture’s impact on our water resources.

Last October, I appeared before the Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Board and requested the board to investigate failure of the Dodge County Land Conservation Committee to implement its approved land and water conservation plan regarding winter spreading of livestock manure. DATCP denied the board authority to make such an investigation and took no action on its own to deal with inadequate implementation of the conservation plan by the county.

Section ATCP 50.04(3) requires all agricultural producers to have and follow a nutrient management plan (NMP) to reduce runoff of nutrients to surface and ground water; however, there is no enforcement. Most cropland in Dodge County is operated without a nutrient management plan — only 33 percent of county cropland is under a NMP. Neither DATCP nor our county LCC enforce the provision. Jefferson County is the bright spot in the Rock River Valley with 73 percent of cropland in a NMP. Dane and Rock counties have even less NMP participation than Dodge County — Rock is 27 percent and Dane is 26 percent.

This coming Thursday is a meeting of the DATCP livestock siting technical expert committee. Although a publicly noticed meeting and although there is considerable controversy regarding livestock siting and preemption of local zoning control over CAFO operations by DATCP, no public involvement or comment will be permitted at the meeting. In my experience, DATCP is managed by and on behalf of agricultural producers and as a result, public stakeholders are marginalized and their concerns minimized.

(3) The harmful effects of industrial agriculture to our environment, natural resources and public health have been with us since the end of World War II, and those effects have been studied in a scientific manner for the past seven decades. I believe there is nothing complex about the required conservation and management practices and governmental regulations and enforcement necessary to protect our land, water and air resources and safeguard public health.

The missing link, in my view, is the political will to take action.

We know the problem and we know what is needed to deal with it — lack of compliance is the problem, and regulation and enforcement are needed. Point-source polluters such as municipal wastewater treatment facilities, factories and industrial operations, etc., are required under the federal Clean Water Act (CWA) to comply with CWA provisions. Non-point polluters such as agriculture, on the other hand, are not required to comply — compliance by the farmer is strictly voluntary — and the job is not getting done.

The TMDL [total maximum daily load] for the Rock River Basin indicates that the two largest contributors of phosphorus and suspended solids to the basin are agriculture and wastewater treatment facilities. Wastewater facilities contribute 26 percent of the phosphorus and 3 percent of the suspended solids, while agriculture is the source of 64 percent of the phosphorus and 89 percent of the suspended solids (sediment). The state is tightening the screws on our municipal treatment facilities to reduce phosphorus discharges through enforceable mandates, while essentially ignoring the biggest contributor of phosphorus — agriculture.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report in January 2014 [Editor’s note: See sidebar, “Clean Water Act: Changes needed if key EPA program is to help fulfill the nation’s water quality goals,” at the end of this column] regarding achievement of objectives of the Clean Water Act. The conclusion is sobering for those of us concerned with water quality:

Because the Clean Water Act addresses nonpoint source pollution largely through voluntary means, EPA does not have direct authority to compel landowners to take prescribed actions to reduce such pollution. In GAO’s survey, state officials knowledgeable about TMDLs reported that 83 percent of TMDLs have achieved their targets for point source pollution (e.g., factories) through permits but that 20 percent achieved their targets for nonpoint source pollution.

Without changes to the act’s approach to nonpoint source pollution, the act’s goals are likely to remain unfulfilled.

(4) My experience tells me that industrial agriculture is not a good steward of our natural resources nor a good neighbor. Good stewards don’t pollute their neighbor’s well with cow manure, spray liquid manure into the air where the hydrogen sulfide and ammonia drift cause asthma attacks in neighborhood children and elderly, improperly fertilize corn fields to the extent that nitrate levels in drinking water of private wells exceed state health limits, plow next to rivers and streams causing sediment runoff that chokes our waterways, or allow manure spills and nutrient runoff that pollute our lakes, rivers and streams, killing fish, closing swimming beaches and causing harmful algae blooms.

I learned that just today a large manure spill (640,000 gallons) occurred in Door County.

(5) Our farming community has demonstrated that it is unwilling to voluntarily adopt conservation practices that would significantly lessen the resource impact and moderate the public health effects of current agricultural operations. In Dodge County alone, the USDA NRCS [U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service] district conservationist has for the past three years sent back to Washington, D.C., funds budgeted for EQIP (Environmental Quality Implementation Program) conservation practices since there was no demand by county farmers for the program. Everyone is planting ditch to ditch and expanding sizes of dairy herds.

So, unless you and our other legislators take the time to truly understand that lack of compliance is the problem and engender political will across the aisle to take corrective action, then I fear your view of a “long-term focus” will be reality. We will continue to kick the proverbial can down the road for the next generation and praise our farmers for being good stewards and compliment leaders of DNR, DATCP and DHS [Wisconsin Department of Health Services] on the great job they’re doing, while our rural residents drink contaminated water, breathe polluted air and our lakes, rivers and streams turn green and brown.

I very much regret that I have yet to see anyone in Madison [Wisconsin] willing to help turn this ship around before it goes aground. Perhaps you might be willing to take the lead in developing a political consensus for corrective action. If we can assist in that regard, please let me know.

Clean Water Act: Changes needed if key EPA program is to help fulfill the nation’s water quality goals

Editor’s note: The following is a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).

GAO-14-80: Published: Dec 5, 2013. Publicly Released: Jan 13, 2014.

What GAO found

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the states each have responsibilities for developing and implementing pollution targets, known as total maximum daily loads (TMDL). EPA oversees states’ TMDL efforts by establishing in regulations minimum requirements TMDLs need for approval, providing funding and furnishing technical assistance. States develop TMDLs and generally take the lead in implementing them by identifying pollutants that impair water quality and taking actions to reduce them.

Of about 50,000 TMDLs developed and approved, nearly 35,000 were approved more than five years ago, long enough for GAO to consider them long established. State officials GAO surveyed in its representative sample of 191 TMDLs reported that pollutants had been reduced in many waters, but few impaired water bodies have fully attained water quality standards.

The sample of 25 TMDLs reviewed by water resource experts GAO contacted seldom contained all features key to attaining water quality standards. According to the National Research Council and EPA, these features — some that are beyond the scope of EPA’s existing regulations — include identifying pollution-causing stressors and showing how addressing them would help attain such standards; specifying how and by whom TMDLs will be implemented; and ensuring periodic revisions as needed. The experts found, however, that 17 of 25 long-established TMDLs they reviewed did not show that addressing identified stressors would help attain water quality standards; 12 contained vague or no information on actions that need to be taken, or by whom, for implementation; and 15 did not contain features to help ensure that TMDLs are revised, if need be. GAO’s review showed that EPA’s existing regulations do not explicitly require TMDLs to include these key features, and without such features in TMDLs — or in addition to TMDLs — impaired water bodies are unlikely to attain standards.

In response to GAO’s survey, state officials reported that long-established TMDLs generally do not exhibit factors most helpful for attaining water quality standards, particularly for nonpoint source pollution (e.g., farms and storm water runoff). The officials reported that landowner participation and adequate funding — factors they viewed as among the most helpful in implementing TMDLs — were not present in the implementation activities of at least two-thirds of long-established TMDLs, particularly those of nonpoint source TMDLs. Because the Clean Water Act addresses nonpoint source pollution largely through voluntary means, EPA does not have direct authority to compel landowners to take prescribed actions to reduce such pollution. In GAO’s survey, state officials knowledgeable about TMDLs reported that 83 percent of TMDLs have achieved their targets for point source pollution (e.g., factories) through permits but that 20 percent achieved their targets for nonpoint source pollution. In 1987, when the act was amended to cover such pollution, some members of Congress indicated that this provision was a starting point, to be changed if reliance on voluntary approaches did not significantly improve water quality. More than 40 years after Congress passed the Clean Water Act, however, EPA reported that many of the nation’s waters are still impaired, and the goals of the act are not being met. Without changes to the act’s approach to nonpoint source pollution, the act’s goals are likely to remain unfulfilled.

Why GAO did this study

The 1972 Clean Water Act aimed to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters.” Under the act, states must establish water quality standards; for waters that do not meet these standards, states must develop TMDLs, which EPA approves. TMDLs set targeted limits for pollutants but are not self-implementing; EPA and states help reduce pollutants by issuing permits for point sources, whereas they provide voluntary incentives to reduce nonpoint source pollution.

GAO was asked to examine the TMDL program, specifically (1) EPA’s and states’ responsibilities in developing and implementing TMDLs, (2) what is known about the status of long-established TMDLs, (3) the extent to which such TMDLs contain features key to attaining water quality standards, and (4) the extent to which TMDLs exhibit factors that facilitate effective implementation. GAO asked water resource experts to review a random sample of 25 long-established TMDLs and surveyed state officials who are responsible for implementing a representative sample of 191 long established TMDLs.

What GAO recommends

GAO recommends that EPA issue new regulations for TMDL development, adding key features. Further, Congress should consider revising the Clean Water Act’s approach to addressing nonpoint source pollution. EPA did not comment on the matter for Congress. The agency agreed with the need to add key features to TMDLs, but did not agree to issue new regulations. GAO believes new regulations are needed.

For more information, contact J. Alfredo Gómez at (202) 512-3841 or

From the Sept. 24-30, 2014, issue

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