State Supreme Court Upholds DNR Water Authority
DNR can place restrictions on high capacity wells, large livestock farms to protect water.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court has affirmed the state 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 pair of court decisions issued Thursday go against the state Legislature’s arguments that a 2011 law limits state agency authority to what is explicitly required or allowed under state law. The Legislature chose to intervene in the two cases earlier this year.
In the first case, Clean Wisconsin and a group of Kewaunee County residents challenged the DNR’s approval of a wastewater discharge permit for Kinnard Farms to expand its concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO, by adding a second site and more than 3,000 dairy cows.
The case goes back to 2012 when Kewaunee County residents asked the DNR to review its approval of Kinnard Farms’ permit because it did not require groundwater monitoring or set limits on the number of animals. In 2014, an administrative law judge ordered the DNR to implement the two permit conditions, citing “a crisis with respect to groundwater quality in the area.”
In Wednesday’s state Supreme Court decision, written by Karofsky, 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.
An attorney representing Kinnard Farms declined a request for comment on the decision but shared a written statement from the company.
“Although our family is disappointed with the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision, we respect the Court and its holding. Our family remains committed to producing high-quality, nutritious milk and renewable natural gas while going the extra mile to protect our precious land and water resources,” said the statement from Kinnard Farms.
In the second case, filed in 2018, Clean Wisconsin and the Pleasant Lake Management District contested the DNR’s approval of eight high-capacity well applications made by farmers in the Central Sands region between 2014 and 2015.
Dallet wrote in the court’s opinion that Act 21 did not change the Lake Beulah decision because the state Legislature “has granted the DNR the broad but explicit authority to consider the environmental effects of a proposed high capacity well.”
Evan Feinauer, staff attorney for Clean Wisconsin, said the decisions will not only affect the facilities involved in the cases but solidifies the DNR’s authority to protect waters from pollution or from overextraction when issuing permits.
“The court clearly today said that, at least in these cases, that law, Act 21, does not limit DNR’s authority,” Feinauer said. “That’s a really important principle to now have some clarity on moving forward. Because that could apply to a whole range of permitting operations by DNR and frankly a whole range of agency actions beyond the natural resource realm.”
A DNR spokesperson said in an email that the agency was still reviewing the decisions but said the rulings were “significant and good for Wisconsin’s waters.”
In addition to the Legislature, several industry groups intervened in the case in support of the DNR and their previous interpretation, including Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the Dairy Business Association and the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation.
Gefvert said Thursday’s decision is a “clear indication” that the DNR will use the previous Lake Beulah decision to evaluate high-capacity well permits moving forward.
Tamas Houlihan is executive director of the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association, another group that filed in support of the state. He said in an email statement that his industry would continue to keep “environmental stewardship as a high priority.”
“Although the Wisconsin Supreme Court did not decide as we had hoped they would, we will work with regulators to ensure we can do our jobs, economically support Wisconsin, and maintain our commitment to the environment,” Houlihan said in the statement.
An attorney for the Legislature did not respond to a request for comment.
Editor’s note: Danielle Kaeding contributed reporting to this story.
Listen to the WPR report here.
Wisconsin Supreme Court Affirms DNR Authority To Restrict, Deny Farm Permits To Protect Water was originally published by Wisconsin Public Radio.