A Wisconsin dairy group is challenging whether the state can require farmers to obtain operating permits that aren't required under federal law.
In a lawsuit filed last month by the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association, the group argues the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has long overstepped its authority in regulating large animal farms.
A court win could widely impact the state's ability to oversee manure storage and disposal practices unless state agents can show a farm had contaminated wells and surface waters.
Large livestock farms, or CAFOs, have fallen under recent scrutiny following large manure spills with environmentalists calling for increased oversight and regulation.
Earlier this year, Emerald Sky Dairy in St. Croix County came under fire when a large-scale manure spill led to a DNR investigation after going unreported for nearly four months.
Removing DNR regulations would task counties with the responsibility, but some county officials worry because they have thinner staffs than the DNR and little ability to regulate beyond county lines.
The DNR lists more than 250 CAFOs across the state, up from fewer than 50 in the mid-'90s. The vast majority of those farms are dairy operations, and the DNR classifies CAFOs as farms with more than a thousand animals.
State auditors found shortfalls in the department's practices for policing pollution last year. Citing staff shortages, the report detailed infrequent farm monitoring and permit backlogs.
St. Croix County Planning and Conservation Specialist Tamara Witmer said the county only has one staff member responsible for fielding calls about a manure spill to one of its six CAFO farms.
"If the DNR is too over-regulating, then (farmers) can put a shovel in the ground and put a manure storage wherever they want?" she said. "We don't even let a developer put a shovel in the ground without hiring an engineer."
The Wisconsin Dairy Business Association argues the department lacks authority in most circumstances to require large livestock farms to obtain water discharge permits, which regulate how farmers spread manure.
Attorneys for the dairy group allege the DNR did not go through the proper rule-making process when it stopped allowing farmers to filter pollution through vegetation.
In a news release announcing the lawsuit, the dairy association's president Mike North said state requirements are costly and put "the livelihoods of dairy farm families at risk."
"We're asking the DNR to follow the rules," he said. "The agency clearly is overstepping its legal boundaries on this and other issues."
The DNR said it doesn't comment on pending litigation.
Rodney Webb, the Director of Land Conservation Department in Pierce County, said his department already requires farms get permits before building manure storage structures. Those requirements, he said, follow the same standard as the DNR.
Pierce County has about four CAFOs.
Webb declined to speculate what outcome the lawsuit would have on his department, aside from saying, "it may mean we'd be working more with the large farms."
A larger issue Witmer sees is inconsistent oversight between counties because farms would no longer need a wastewater permit in most cases.
She said she worries the change may lead to border spats if a neighboring county imposing lax oversight leads to runoff into surface water and underground aquifers counties share.
"Our water and public health doesn't stop at political boundaries and county lines," Witmer said. "If one county chooses not to, then what is our ability to protect our public health and safety?"