Audit critical of DNR’s water oversight

Political beat

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 limited enforcement action against sewage plants and industries that exceeded limits.

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.

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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 Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association, the Dairy Business Association and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.

The potential losers are those who own waterfront 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.

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. Scott Walker said there won’t be any changes in the financing of the DNR before next year. The latest state budget eliminated 90 DNR positions.

-Matt Pommer is the “dean” of Capitol correspondents in Madison. His column is published with permission from the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, but does not reflect the views or opinions of the WNA or its member newspapers.

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