Next Steps on Wisconsin Nitrate Pollution and Rule-making Process (NR 151)

Nov 1, 2019 | Agriculture, Citizen Advocacy, Water Policy, Water Quality Task Force | 1 comment

Here’s what we know… We know nitrate has contaminated too much water across the state. 

Source: Wisconsin Groundwater Coordinating Council Report to the Legislature 2018, (DNR)

We know the health risks posed by consuming nitrate-contaminated water. 

We know which parts of the state have high nitrates in their water and which soils are most susceptible for nitrate contamination. 

We know the primary source of nitrate pollution is runoff from agriculture. 

We know—to begin to address this problem—we need targeted solutions to help farmers reduce their runoff and impact on our waters, and still continue to be profitable. 

We know we need to act with urgency. See below to learn how you can submit written comments to the WI DNR today.

An Unfortunate Delay, and Our Next Steps

The Governor and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WI DNR) know this as well. Governor Evers has asked the WI DNR to create rules for targeted performance standards for nitrates. This means the rules will be focused on the places that need them most. The WI DNR has begun the rule-making process (which can take 30-months or more) by creating a scope statement that broadly defines the goals the new rules will accomplish.

The scope statement says, 

“The purpose of the proposed revisions to ch. NR 151, Wis. Adm. Code, and limited incorporation by reference of those proposed revisions to ch. NR 243, is to establish agricultural nonpoint source performance standards targeted to abate pollution of nitrate in areas of the state with highly permeable soils which are susceptible to groundwater contamination (sensitive areas) for the purpose of achieving compliance with the nitrate groundwater standards.

The Governor approved this scope statement in August, but instead of going right to work solving this problem for the people of Wisconsin, the legislature is requiring the WI DNR to hold hearings on the scope statement.  

The Natural Resource Board (NRB) approved three hearings on the scope statement, which will be held on November 4th, 6th, and 7th. We see these hearings as a delay tactic. The Wisconsin DNR has lost several months of time where they could have been working on this rule. Under laws passed in the last few years, a scope statement only lasts for 30 months. If an agency doesn’t complete a rule in that time it has to start over.

This was done because of pressure by large agricultural interests (read their letter here).

Once the scope statement is approved by the NRB (December 2019 is the soonest this can happen) the WI DNR will engage stakeholders to discuss solutions for at least the next year. This is where the hard work will take place and negotiations will be made. 

After the DNR creates the targeted performance standards, there will be another public hearing where all sides will have the opportunity to share their support or concerns. 

Nitrate contamination was brought up at every Water Quality Task Force hearing. At those hearings staff from counties across the state shared their data about nitrate problems, citizens shared their stories about contaminated wells and health problems due to high nitrates. 

According to the Wisconsin Groundwater Coordinating Council, about 90% of the nitrate in groundwater in Wisconsin comes from the application of nitrogen-containing fertilizers, manure, and biosolids (municipal, industrial, and septic “sludge”) to crop fields. Less than 10% of the nitrate in groundwater is attributed to private on-site waste treatment systems.

Even though many agricultural groups testified at the Water Quality Task Force hearings that they preferred targeted solutions rather than one-size-fits-all regulations, they are choosing to push back on the NR 151 targeted standards for nitrates even before the process begins. 

At the April 3, 2019 WQTF hearing the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation stated, “We support the development of targeted, science-based regulations that recognize the needs and challenges of different geographic regions of the state.” River Alliance of Wisconsin and our members couldn’t agree more. 

We need targeted solutions to help reduce the amount of nitrates contaminating our waters. But first, the lengthy rule process must be allowed to move forward.

Written Comments Needed

Please take a moment to submit comments to the DNR by November 8th.

The very simple message is (you can personalize, copy and paste): 

I approve of the scope statement 077-19 for rule WT-19-19. Wisconsin’s nitrate contamination problems need to be addressed. The DNR needs to be allowed to start the process of engaging stakeholders to determine the targeted performance standards in places that have both high levels of nitrate and highly susceptible soils. The health of people and our waters can’t wait any longer for solutions. 

NOTE: If you have a personal story about high nitrates in your well water, or if you are a farmer that has taken or is willing to take steps to reduce nitrates, please add a that to your comments to the DNR. 

Or, you may mail your comments to:

Brian Weigel; Dept. of Natural Resources, Bureau of Watershed Management
P.O. Box 7921
Madison, WI 53707-7921

Attend an Upcoming Hearing

If you would like to attend a hearing in person, the dates and locations are: 

Hearing 1 | Hancock, WI:

  • November 4, 2019
  • 1PM to 2:30PM
  • Hancock Research Station; Headquarters Building
    N3909 County Road V; Hancock, Wisconsin

Hearing 2 | Janesville, WI:

  • November 6, 2019
  • 1PM to 2:30PM
  • Blackhawk Technical College; Room 1400B (North Commons)
    6004 South County Road G; Janesville, Wisconsin

Hearing 3 | Fond du Lac, WI:

  • November 7, 2019
  • 1:30pm to 3PM
  • University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, Fond du Lac Campus
    Room UC-114 (also known as “Large Group Instructional Room”)
    400 University Drive; Fond du Lac, Wisconsin