Supreme Court Sides with Environmental Groups

Madison – After years of court battles, the Wisconsin Supreme Court handed environmental advocates in the state a pair of victories last week. The court ruled in two separate cases, each named Clean Wisconsin v. Department of Natural Resources (DNR), that the DNR must exercise its authority to protect Wisconsin’s water resources.

Clean Wisconsin President and CEO Mark Redsten called the decisions a “victory for clean water and commonsense environmental protection.”

Both cases looked at the impact of a controversial 2011 law known as Act 21 on the DNR’s ability to use its permitting process to protect water resources. 

The first case involved a wastewater-discharge permit issued by the DNR in 2012 for Kinnard Farms, a large dairy operation in Kewaunee County. Clean Wisconsin and co-litigant Midwest Environmental Advocates argued that the DNR should have required off-site groundwater monitoring and imposed an animal-unit limit as conditions of its wastewater-permit renewal to reduce the risk of manure contamination in nearby drinking-water wells. 

The second case centered around eight high-capacity well permits that the DNR issued in the Central Sands region of the state for large-scale agriculture irrigation. Clean Wisconsin and co-litigant Pleasant Lake Management District challenged those permits, pointing to the DNR’s own statements that the wells would harm nearby lakes and streams.

The Wisconsin Legislature and industry groups intervened in both cases, arguing that Act 21 prevented the DNR from taking steps through its permitting process to keep groundwater and waterways from harm. In both cases, the DNR changed its position – to support Clean Wisconsin’s challenges – shortly after the election of Gov. Tony Evers. 

“The Legislature and industry groups didn’t really argue that environmental harm wasn’t occurring in these cases,” said Clean Wisconsin staff attorney Evan Feinauer. “The focus was solely on preventing the DNR from doing something about it. But the court’s direction is clear: The DNR can and should act. We applaud that ruling and everything it means for Wisconsin’s future.” 

Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR) reported that a DNR spokesperson said in an email that the agency was still reviewing the decisions. The DNR reportedly said the rulings were “significant and good for Wisconsin’s waters.”

WPR reported that in addition to the Wisconsin Legislature, several industry groups intervened in the case in support of the DNR and its previous interpretation, including Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the Dairy Business Association and the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation.

Karen Gefvert, executive director of governmental relations for the Farm Bureau, said in a WPR report that the decisions were not what they had hoped for, but they’ll “continue to work with the Department of Natural Resources to ensure that we can comply with any of the requirements that they have while continuing to grow food for Wisconsin and the whole world.” 

Clean Wisconsin has also been working with members of the state’s agricultural community on ways to mitigate farming impacts on the environment, and many farmers are already making changes to the way they farm to reduce the risk of groundwater contamination from manure spreading.

“We look forward to continuing our work with agriculture and other important stakeholders in a collaborative way to protect Wisconsin’s air and water,” Redsten said.