DNR takes hits for poor oversight of water issues

CAPITOL NEWSLETTER
Matt Pommer • Wisconsin Newspaper Association

Water and environmental issues are bubbling up into major political topics as summer arrives in Wisconsin.

A 124-page audit report has raised questions about regulation of the state’s water by the Department of Natural Resources. The audit assailed the DNR’s 10-year record of very limited enforcement action against sewage plants and industries that exceeded limits.

There weren’t enough employees to review annual reports on how a million gallons of manure would be kept out of state lakes and streams. The latest state budget which Gov. Scott Walker signed eliminated 90 DNR positions.

State Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, said the audit’s findings were a surprise even to members of the DNR Board. Its chair, Terry Hilgenberg, said the DNR staff had not told the board about the seriousness of the audit.

Even more stunning was the DNR’s announcement that it is reducing its concern about the impact of high-capacity wells. It won’t consider the long-term cumulative impact of the wells on aquifers and streams in issuing well permits. More than half of the high-capacity wells are used for major agricultural operations.

The move came without legislative approval. Environmental experts suggest the move will eventually end up in the conservative State Supreme Court. In the past the high court has ruled the DNR is entrusted to protect citizens’ constitutional rights to freely navigate public waters.

Who benefits from the DNR’s high-capacity well decision? Outdoor writer Patrick Durkin lists the Potato and Vegetable Growers Association, the Dairy Business Association, and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce.

The potential losers are those who own water front property. Less water means smaller lakes and damage to fish populations. The property owners are of all political hues. Durkin notes that some small lakes and streams were struggling before the policy was changed.

The reactions of Cowles and Hilgenberg were part of the extensive newspaper coverage on the environmental issues. In Wisconsin environmental issues are usually bipartisan matters.

Cowles, a moderate Republican, suggested the Legislature act quickly to help the agency fund additional positions. One Cowles idea would allow the DNR to keep more fee revenue from polluters.

But a spokesman for Gov. Walker said there won’t be any changes in the financing of the Natural Resources Department before next year.

The latest Marquette University Law School poll showed Walker’s job performance approval rating had dropped to 39 percent. The governor suggested newspapers are the reason it has dipped below 40 percent.

“The headlines are always about negative and bad things so it’s no wonder that people feel that way in polls,” Walker told reporters.

The governor is not the first politician to blame newspaper headlines. Conservative talk radio shows have long been supportive of his administration’s efforts on various fronts. But his ratings are still below 40 percent.

Headlines aren’t everything in newspapers. Outdoor writers and letters to the editor are likely to keep the water issues in the public eye.

It could be a drip, drip, drip on Walker’s ratings.


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