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By LeAnn R. Ralph
MENOMONIE — When encountering cases of pollution from manure storage failures or manure run-off on farm fields, the state Department of Natural Resources puts the majority of effort toward compliance to fix the problem.
There are two kinds of pollution, point source and non-point source, and failing manure storage units and manure run-off from farm fields are considered non-point source pollution, said Liz Usborne, regional non-point source coordinator with the DNR, at the Dunn County Planning, Resources and Development Committee’s September 6 meeting.
Examples of point source pollution would be pollution from cities, villages or factories.
Tom Quinn, Dunn County Board supervisor from Downing and chair of the PR&D committee, said he had invited Usborne to talk about run-off management and enforcement as the PR&D committee prepares to start working on updating the county’s comprehensive land use plan.
Run-off from rainfall and snow melt that carries sediment has a cumulative effect over a large area and is the leading cause of water quality problems, Usborne said.
“Everything the rain touches is my problem,” she said.
Under NR151, even if a farm is not large enough to be a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO), which requires a Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (WPDES) permit, there are still run-off rules that must be followed, Usborne said.
Cropland standards establish a tolerable soil loss for a particular site, which does not mean no soil loss, and the tolerable soil loss is geared toward agricultural productivity and not water quality, she said.
The phosphorus index focuses on agronomic need rather than water quality, Usborne said.
A nutrient management plan is required for all farming operations, Usborne said.
Even if a farm is not required to regularly submit a nutrient management plan, all farms are required to have one, even if it is handwritten on a piece of paper, she said.
As part of nutrient management, livestock can have access to waters of the state, but the banks must have adequate sod or self-sustaining vegetative cover, Usborne said.
The DNR uses “stepped enforcement” to deal with pollution from feed leachate or manure storage or manure spreading, she said.
The steps include informal contacts, notice of non-compliance, notice of violation, an enforcement conference, and finally, referral to the state Department of Justice, Usborne said.
The goal is to achieve compliance at the lowest level possible — it is not the goal to be punitive, she said.
The DNR most often finds out about farms that are non-compliant with manure storage or manure spreading through complaints from the public, Usborne said.
People will see manure running in the ditches or will see streams that are filled with manure and will file a complaint with the DNR, she said.
Stepped enforcement can take years to accomplish, noted Chase Cummings, Dunn County conservationist.
Cost share is required in cases of non-compliance, and public funds are spent for the public benefit of helping the environment, Usborne said.
Farms with animal units ranging from one to 999 are eligible for the cost share funds. Farms with 1,000 animal units or more are defined as CAFOs. A WPDES permit is required for a CAFO, and the farms are required to operate under the CAFO rules, she said.
Each year, the DNR receives $1 million in state funds to use for cost sharing, Usborne said.
From the examples Usborne gave to the PR&D committee, any single project to bring a farm into compliance could easily cost more than $1 million.
Federal funds are used in Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) areas, and Wisconsin receives $4 million per year. The amount has stayed the same each year since since 2010, Usborne said.
TMDL refers to phosphorus run-off.
In order to qualify for the cost share to help bring a manure storage facility into compliance, the facility had to be in existence before the rule was put into place in 2002, and the facility must have remained out of compliance since then, Usborne said.
Farmers are not required to accept the cost-share funds, but they must come into compliance, she said.
Gary Bjork, county board supervisor from Colfax and a member of the PR&D committee, noted that a recent court ruling had changed the definition of navigable waters.
“Navigable waters” is a federal term and has a federal definition. Wisconsin has a definition for “waters of the state” that goes beyond the federal protections, so Wisconsin will largely be unaffected by the court ruling, Usborne said.
Monica Barrier, county board supervisor from Menomonie and a member of the PR&D committee, asked about nutrient management plans.
Not all farmers are required to submit nutrient management plans on a regular basis, and Dunn County also has a local manure storage ordinance as well as a farmland preservation ordinance, Usborne said.
Quinn noted that the DNR often discovers non-compliance through complaints from the public and wondered about DNR officials going to a farm and asking to see the facilities.
CAFO staff are assigned two dozen facilities for each person. A ratio of one to 24 is more manageable than a ratio of one to thousands of farms, Usborne said, noting that she is at the level of one to thousands of farms.
That is why compliance checks tend to be generated by complaints, she said.
When people submit a complaint about run-off from a feedlot or problems with a manure storage facility, then the DNR must work to determine the source of the pollution, Usborne said.
Even though the feedlot or manure run-off is visible from the road, DNR personnel still must obtain permission from the landowner to access the property and cannot just go onto someone’s farm, she said.
There are more complaints in the spring and in the fall because there is less vegetation, so people can see more, and that is when manure spreading occurs, Usborne said.
There are usually a handful of legitimate complaints per county per year, she noted
NR151 has been in existence for 20 years, and by now, the “low hanging fruit” problems have been addressed, Usborne said.
Effort is currently being put toward working on management changes, such as no-till, planting cover crops and encouraging farms to write and use nutrient management plans, she said.
“Human hours” are needed to facilitate societal change, and that requires more people and more money, Usborne said.
One strategy is to get stakeholders to talk with each other and to work together, she said.
“It’s not just me swooping in, wearing a cape,” Usborne said.
Early on, “DNR” was a dirty word, said Bjork, who noted that he has been involved with agriculture his whole life.
Have the farmer-led watersheds helped? he asked.
Farmer-led watersheds are an additional opportunity to educate people and bring about management changes, Usborne said.
Diplomacy is involved, because the DNR does not want to come in and say “we are going to tell you what to do.” Everyone must learn from each other to do good things for the environment and water quality, she said.
Farmer-led watersheds are a wonderful additional opportunity to engage with stakeholders, Usborne said.
Bjork said he appreciated opportunities to have meetings with DNR personnel on a non-confrontational basis for better understanding “from both parties.”
Dunn County just completed water testing throughout the county, and the question will be how to deal with problems that are revealed by the testing, Quinn said.
What can counties and townships do beyond the state’s requirements to address standards? he asked.
Nitrate contamination of private wells has become more of a problem in agricultural areas in recent years, or perhaps, people are becoming more aware of the problem. There are pockets of nitrate contamination in Dunn County, and the Town of Emerald in St. Croix County has problems with nitrate contamination of private wells that is believed by local residents to be linked to a large dairy and made worse by the karst topography in the area.
A setback requirement for manure application near private wells could be one step that could help, Usborne said.
The location of private wells in nutrient management plans would be necessary so that the setback could be established for land application of manure, she said.
When a large hog farm proposed to locate in Polk County, several townships adopted ordinances to help regulate the farm, Quinn said.
Town boards have more authority than they realize to adopt ordinances that can help uphold standards, Usborne said.