Sharon Cekada / The Post-Crescent / AP

Politicized environmental agency threatens Wisconsin’s water, critics say

Conservationists say Walker’s Department of Natural Resources is threatening the state’s resources

Editor’s note: This is part one of a three-part series examining industry’s effects on Wisconsin’s water resources. Part two looks at the effect high capacity wells are having on the state’s Central Sands region. Part three explores agriculture's effect on Kewaunee County's drinking water.

MADISON, Wis. — There are so many lakes in Wisconsin that not even half of them have been named.

With some 84,000 miles of rivers and streams, more than 15,000 lakes, millions of acres of wetlands and more than a quadrillion gallons of groundwater, Wisconsin has long been a model for environmental conservation and a destination for those looking to enjoy nature.

But residents, environmentalists, and researchers say that legacy and the state’s water resources are under threat. While the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) secretary became a politicized appointment 20 years ago, many say Gov. Scott Walker’s administration has had an unprecedented impact on the state’s natural resources, and that Wisconsin’s bountiful waters are more imperiled than ever.

In the past 10 years, the number of frac sand mines in Wisconsin has grown from five to more than 60. The number of dairy CAFOs — concentrated animal feeding operations — ballooned from 50 to 250. There are more than 3,000 high capacity wells — which pull at least 70 gallons of water out of the ground each minute — in one region alone, up from fewer than 100 five decades ago.

While some of the measures that set the stage for these increases were put in place under the last administration, critics say Walker has exacerbated the problem as enforcement drops and permit approvals continue.  

“All decisions are being made with a business perspective,” said Bob Clarke of the Friends of the Central Sands, a regional environmentalist group in north-central Wisconsin. “There really isn’t anybody in the top one or two spots that drives decisions based on the resources.”

A representative for the DNR told Al Jazeera that the agency would not be available to comment for this series. Laurel Patrick, Walker’s press secretary, said in an emailed statement that the governor “believes it’s possible to protect our clean air, clean land, and clean water while enacting policies that improve our business climate and spur economic growth.”

“All of the enforcement is being generated by public monitoring and reporting of individuals,” said Lynn Utesch, a farmer in Kewaunee County, where a third of tested drinking water wells have levels of nitrates and coliform bacteria higher than state and federal safety guidelines. Many see the rapid rise in the number of CAFOs as the cause.

“They [the DNR] don’t have enough people,” said Pat Popple, a citizen activist in Chippewa Falls, in western Wisconsin, where a rapid boom of frac sand mines has resulted in sediment spills into area waterways. “They simply don’t have enough people to go around and oversee.”

The most recent state budget written by Walker’s administration and approved by Wisconsin’s GOP-controlled legislature in June cut half of the DNR’s senior science staff — 18 positions — as well as 60 percent of the agency’s education staff.

Critics allege that those senior research positions were cut as political retribution for speaking out about climate change, or against a controversial mining project in the northern part of the state. Wisconsin’s government was going to allow a company to build what could have been the world’s largest open-pit iron mine in the state’s pristine Penokee Hills, but the company halted operations earlier this year.

“This politicization is a problem we’ve had for quite some time,” Schumann said. “And it’s getting worse and worse and worse, and probably under this administration it’s about the worse it’s ever been.”

Enforcement has also been down. According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, The DNR under Secretary Cathy Stepp, Walker’s appointee, accepted 45 percent fewer cases in his first term — an average 256 annually — than the previous governor’s final term in office. Notices of violation dropped from an average of 488 to 281 under Walker, and cases referred to the Justice Department for prosecution dropped from 68 to 32.

Popple said many residents who have noticed code violations or spills say their reports to the DNR are usually not investigated.

“Here, we have people who know it’s happening and have given up on the reporting,” Popple said. “Because they know it’s fruitless energy.”

Patrick said, "Under Gov. Walker, DNR has taken a proactive approach of working with applicants, businesses, and land owners at the beginning of the [permitting] process. The goal would be to someday have no referrals or citations because those actions mean something went wrong."

Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources was formed in 1967, and the Natural Resources Board, made up of representatives from across the state, chose its secretary. In 1995, then-governor Tommy Thompson changed that — turning the DNR Secretary into a cabinet position appointed by the governor.

“Governors have a lot of influence now,” said Kerry Schumann, the executive director of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters. “Whether you agree with a current governor or disagree with a governor, they just have a lot of influence when it comes to natural resources on the ground.”

Walker, a tea party Republican, was elected governor of Wisconsin in 2011 on a platform that included reining in the state’s “out of control” DNR. That year, he appointed Stepp — a former Republican state senator and outspoken critic of the department — as the agency’s secretary, citing her “Chamber of Commerce” mentality.

“This is probably the most anti-conservation governor that we’ve ever had,” Schumann said. “So it’s only natural that the people he’s appointed have the same or similar worldview.”

George Kraft, a University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point professor of water resources researching the impact of the proliferation of high-capacity wells in the state’s Central Sands region, said Walker’s DNR has become closed off.

“They’ve developed this shell where they won’t talk to you, they won’t engage with you,” said Kraft, who previously work for the agency.

Kraft referenced a 2014 court case, where residents and conservation groups had taken the DNR to court over high-capacity well permit applications. Fearing that the proliferation of the wells — which can pump 70 gallons of water out of the ground each minute when operating, used mostly for agriculture — is draining the state’s lakes, the group sued the DNR over its long-standing policy of considering each well permit application individually and not taking into account the cumulative impacts of existing wells.

The judge ruled against the DNR in 2014, ordering the agency to consider cumulative impacts of high-capacity wells when processing new permit applications.

“You’ve got to haul them to court and sue them to get them to do their job,” Kraft said.

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