Tag Archives: natural resources

Board to consider putting another 5,900 acres up for sale

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ board was set this week to decide whether to sell nearly 6,000 more acres of land to help satisfy a state budget mandate but won’t take up a proposal to sell lakefront property to one of Gov. Scott Walker’s major donors.

The Natural Resources Board was expected to approve an agency plan on Feb. 24 to designate 5,900 acres for sale at a meeting in Madison. The board already has approved selling about 1,400 acres.

Republicans added provisions to the 2013-15 budget that require the DNR to sell 10,000 acres by mid-2017 to help pay down ballooning debt in the stewardship program, the mechanism the agency uses to borrow money for land purchases. The land must lie outside the boundaries of existing projects such as state parks or state forests.

GOP lawmakers have criticized the program for years; they say it takes too much land off the tax rolls, generates too much debt and forces the state to pay too much to local governments to offset lost property taxes when land enters the program. The agency owns about 1.5 million acres and has easements on another 303,561 acres, according to a memo DNR officials sent to the Natural Resources Board earlier this month.

The board in June 2014 approved 1,407 acres for sale. The DNR has now recommended the board put another 5,900 acres on the sales block, including 23 parcels totaling 2,405 acres that would be sold to municipalities and tribes. Most of the land would have to be kept open to the public for outdoor activities as a condition of sale.

The agency also has recommended selling 35 parcels totaling 2,486 acres with no legal access to a road to adjoining property owners; and 24 parcels totaling 1,009 acres to the general public via competitive bids. The parcels are spread across more than two dozen counties. A complete list of the parcels is available on the DNR’s website.

The board was expected to vote on selling the parcels during a meeting on Feb. 24 in Madison. Approval would bring the total number of acres approved for sale to 7,307. Board members also are expected to consider granting the DNR permission to begin studying the possibility of selling another 32 parcels totaling 2,195 acres.

The DNR has sold 394 acres so far, generating $637,000, DNR spokesman George Althoff said.

The board also was expected to consider selling 1.75 acres along the Rest Lake shoreline in the town of Manitowish Waters to Walker donor Elizabeth Uihlein, but Altoff said that sale wasn’t on the board’s agenda and that the property’s future was “undetermined.”

Uihlein and her husband, Richard Uihlein, gave Unintimidated PAC, a super PAC that backed Walker’s ill-fated presidential bid, $3 million last year, according to federal campaign finance reports. She owns a condominium complex adjacent to the DNR’s Rest Lake property but the condos lack lake access.

The DNR had planned to sell her the land for $275,000. The agency said the land was appraised at $384,000 in February 2015 and again in June at $238,000. Walker’s critics ripped the deal, calling it a sweetheart deal for a donor.

The board was set to take up the sale during a meeting in September but tabled the proposal after Preston Cole, then the board’s chairman, said the board should take it up as part of the broader sale recommendations in February.

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Critics: State’s plan to save bees provides little protection from pesticides

Packed into brains the size of a sesame seed, bees’ navigational systems enable them to locate and pollinate $55 million worth of Wisconsin crops annually.

But Wisconsin has become a hard place to be a bee.

The state’s honeybee colony die-off rates, among the highest in the nation, last year was around 60 percent. Beekeeper surveys show 15 percent is generally considered to be an acceptable loss rate.

Wisconsin pollinator populations have been declining for years, endangering the growth of apples, cranberries, cherries and many other fruits and vegetables that rely on bees, butterflies and other pollinators to fertilize them, helping them produce seeds and fruit.

And critics say a recently issued draft of a pollinator protection plan for Wisconsin may offer only limited relief for the insects. The plan recommends voluntary actions such as increasing roadside plantings and pollinator-friendly home gardens, but sets no targets for decreasing the use of a controversial class of agricultural pesticides, neonicotinoids, that attack insects’ brains.

“If it’s all voluntary, it’s basically something that no one has to follow, so what is the point?” asked Harriet Behar, an organic farming specialist with the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, a nonprofit that promotes sustainable agriculture. Behar keeps 25 beehives on her 216-acre farm in Crawford County in southwestern Wisconsin.

Many scientists and beekeepers including Behar believe large-scale farming practices for crops such as corn and soy — which together represent a $2.6 billion industry in Wisconsin — are important contributors to pollinator declines.

“Corn growers, soybean growers don’t need pollinators, so (they) may be less sensitive to the impact their chemicals have on the rest of the environment,” said Claudio Gratton, professor of entomology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who worked on the pollinator proposal for the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

Endless acres of corn and soy with few flowering plants to provide pollen or nectar leave  pollinators with little to eat. For wild bees that build their homes underground, there are few undisturbed places near flowering plants to nest. Other factors such as parasites, pathogens, beekeeping practices that may spread viruses and extreme weather, including drought and severe cold, also can take a toll on bees.

There are also pesticides, including so-called neonics, which act like nicotine in how they target the insect brain.

Pesticide use widespread

Introduced in the 1990s as more targeted toward specific pests and less harmful to humans and wildlife than older, more toxic insecticides — including organophosphates such as parathion and malathion — neonics quickly grew in market share and have become the most widely used insecticides worldwide, with billions in annual sales.

Politically powerful agrochemical interests, including insecticide maker Syngenta, are among the largest producers of neonics. Representatives of Syngenta and the industry trade association CropLife America helped draw up Wisconsin’s pollinator plan. They insist the link between bee population declines and proper use of their products has not been made.

Neonics can be delivered through spraying, by injection, such as into tree trunks, by drenching the soil around plants and by coating seeds with it before planting.

Seed coating is the biggest factor driving increased use of neonics. In January, a group of farmers, beekeepers and advocates filed a lawsuit against the United States Environmental Protection Agency for exempting neonic seed coatings from regulation. The plaintiffs say the lack of regulation will harm pollinators and the environment.

By 2012, virtually all corn seed, and about 30 percent of soybean seed planted in Wisconsin and across the country, was coated with neonics, said Paul Mitchell, a UW-Madison associate professor who co-directs the UW-Extension’s Nutrient and Pest Management Program. Neonic-coated seeds also are widely used on other crops such as potatoes and in lawns and gardens.

Neonics are systemic, meaning they are absorbed and remain in the tissue of the plant. They are also potent neurotoxins. Neonics are chemically designed to attack the nervous system of pest insects that eat any part of a treated plant, causing paralysis and death. 

With widespread reliance on neonics, unintended exposures to beneficial insects such as pollinators can happen.

Seeds coated with neonics have become sort of an insurance policy for many farmers, said Gratton, who along with Christina Locke, a postdoctoral researcher in Gratton’s laboratory, worked on the pollinator plan.

“Ag practices depend on us taming nature. Farmers don’t like variability and uncertainty,” Gratton said.

“With neonics, there is less application since it’s present in the plant the entire season; it’s a one-and-done idea. Overall there is less used, but there are also a lot of unintended consequences.”

Scientists have identified multiple routes by which beneficial insects such as bees suffer unintended exposures to neonics, even if they are not feeding on the treated plants, as a pest might.  

Bees can be exposed through the pollen or nectar of treated plants, by coming into contact with dust kicked up by planting treated seeds, by contacting droplets of water on plants, and by visiting flowers and other plants unintentionally contaminated through neonics’ persistence in soil and water.

It is clear that high enough doses of neonics — such as those that occur from accidental exposures during spraying — can kill bees. Questions about neonics center on lower-level exposures, like those bees might encounter in a field of treated corn or soy.  

Pierre Petelle, a vice president of CropLife Canada, wrote in a 2014 blog post on the industry group’s website that many of the lab studies used to justify restrictions expose bees to “unrealistically high doses of neonics.”

David Flakne, a representative of Syngenta and one of the stakeholders invited by DATCP to contribute to the pollinator plan, said neonics are safe when used as directed. 

“Scientific evidence clearly shows that bees and other pollinators can coexist safely with modern agricultural technology, such as neonic insecticides, when product labels are followed,” Flakne wrote in an email to the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Growing evidence of harm

Scientists say while there are multiple causes of bee declines, studies continue to emerge that question whether bees and neonics can safely coexist at field-realistic exposures. By binding to receptors in bees’ brains, some research has found, neonics seem to scramble their sophisticated mental circuitry.

One study of honeybees that were exposed to nonlethal levels of neonics showed they were both more likely to have trouble navigating back to the hive and less likely to survive than unexposed bees. Numerous studies found that both wild and managed bees exposed to neonics showed a reduced ability to find food, weaker brood development, reduced memory and more vulnerability to disease, according to a 2013 paper by European researchers funded by several environmental foundations.

An international task force that examined more than 800 peer-reviewed studies concluded that the widespread use of neonics and a similar systemic insecticide, fipronil, are important contributors to the decades-long trend of declining populations of pollinators and other insects, which are “vital to food security and sustainable development.”

A study funded by the Wisconsin Potato Industry Board and conducted in the state’s Central Sands area detected leaching of neonics into groundwater and found that high-capacity irrigation well water was recycling neonics back onto farmland. The findings raised concerns about how this ongoing, low-level exposure might be affecting “non-target organisms” such as bees, the authors said.

Some neonics are restricted in Europe and are the subject of lawsuits in the U.S. and Canada due to concerns about their impact on pollinator health and lack of sufficient regulation.

The EPA also has suspended approval of new neonic-based insecticides and is re-evaluating neonics currently on the market. The agency in January issued its first of four pollinator risk assessments on the oldest neonic, imidacloprid, which showed it is “a threat to some pollinators” when used in cotton and citrus.

Farmers weigh risks and alternatives

Russell Groves, an insect ecologist and vegetable crop specialist at the UW-Madison Department of Entomology, said farmers continually search for ways to reduce the risk of crop loss due to pests in part to meet consumer demand for low food prices. Groves said federal policies also incentivize larger farms, where natural pest solutions are less practical.

Alan Jewell, a farmer for 42 years with 4,000 acres of corn and soy in Dodgeville, said he is willing to spend a few extra dollars per acre for neonic-coated corn seed to protect it from pests because “grain prices have collapsed … (and) our profit margin doesn’t allow us much wiggle room.”

“Cutworms can kill off 40 to 80 percent of seedlings,” he added. “Then there are wireworms, and all kinds of pests.”

Some farmers, however, are looking for alternatives.

Steve Groff, a farmer and seed dealer in Pennsylvania, said neonics have their place but have been “way overused.” He recently began an experiment with support from Penn State to see if planting neonic-free corn seed would protect the beneficial insects that prey on the slugs that can destroy his corn.  

The experiment was successful, Groff said. “We started seeing that when we planted green, we had less slug pressure.”

By using alternative farming strategies, such as crop rotation, cover cropping and not tilling soil, Groff said he has reduced his insecticide use by 80 percent. He plans to experiment again this year with a larger plot of neonic-free corn seed.

Plan calls for voluntary measures

The 2015 federal plan that encourages states to develop their own pollinator plans has limited discussion about the role of neonics, Gratton and Locke agreed.

“There is probably a reason the White House report includes very little on pesticides,” Gratton said. “Companies that sell insecticides will make a lot of money on seeds. The agrochemical sector is very powerful.”

At the opening of the first stakeholder meeting last year, Mike Murray of DATCP’s pesticide program told the assembled group, “We’re talking about voluntary actions, we’re not on a regulatory track here.”

Donna Gilson, spokesperson for DATCP, also said the agency lacks the resources to do research on pesticides, so it follows EPA’s lead on regulating them.

An EPA analysis of neonic use on soy concluded that “in most cases, there is no difference in soybean yield when soybean seed was treated with neonicotinoids versus not receiving any insect control treatment.” Yet those findings have spurred no restrictions on the use of neonic-treated seed for soy by the EPA or DATCP. 

For Gratton, a restriction on neonics would raise the concern that farmers might revert to older, more toxic pesticides. “A more nuanced strategy,” Gratton said, “may be both more palatable and get you the same result in terms of protecting pollinators and not impacting yields.”

Crackdown on neonics

Other states and countries have taken a more aggressive approach.

After a number of neonic-related bee death incidents, Oregon banned the application of any product containing the neonics dinotefuran, imidacloprid, thiamethoxam and clothianidin on some flowering trees.

Minnesota’s pollinator plan committed to a review of the risks of neonic use, including negative impacts on pollinators, the development of resistance in targeted pest insects and leaching into soil and water. 

The government of Ontario, Canada, has moved to reduce the use of neonic-treated seed for corn and soybean crops by 80 percent by 2017.

Aimee Code thinks Wisconsin’s plan should include stronger measures.

“We don’t think it’s appropriate to stay quiet when the science is showing that there is an issue with neonics,” said Code, a pesticide expert with the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, one of the invited stakeholder organizations.

Code said given the widespread preventative use of neonics, Wisconsin’s plan should include requirements for scouting and monitoring fields to ensure there is a pest problem before coated seeds get planted. 

“We should be promoting verification of need before use within our pesticide regulation,” she said.

For her part, Harriet Behar, the Crawford County farmer and beekeeper, wants to see “a plan with some teeth in it.”

“Neonics have allowed people to ignore good agronomic processes,” she said. “We don’t have to rotate crops anymore. We just kill everything off with neonics. If we make conservation crop rotation a big push in Wisconsin, so farmers don’t have the pest and disease problems they are currently trying to solve with neonics, that would be a big help.”

Companies may already be moving on to the next new pesticide. Critics call it a pesticide shell game; agrochemical companies describe it as innovation. 

“As concerns are raised, companies always have a new product to replace one which is going out,” said Lex Horan, of the advocacy organization Pesticide Action Network, which works to reduce pesticide use.

In fact, DuPont Pioneer recently announced it had developed a new systemic seed treatment called Lumivia for corn pests which, according to company spokeswoman Jane Slusark, has “low to no impact on pollinators.”

The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

Despite state efforts, arsenic continues to poison many private wells

By the time Bradley Burmeister met his high school science teacher more than a decade ago, concerns had already surfaced about an ancient poison that was appearing in drinking water around their Fox River Valley community. Burmeister never suspected, though, that his family’s well would provide some of the scariest data.

High levels of arsenic, a substance used as a poison since the Middle Ages, had been detected in 1989 in several counties in the Fox Valley region of northeastern Wisconsin. In 2003, Seymour High School science teacher Dennis Rohr and his students began a study of private well water samples from the area that would continue for the next five years.

The arsenic level the students detected in the Burmeister family’s well was off the charts: 1,650 parts per billion (ppb), or 165 times the federal health standard of 10 ppb. Burmeister — whose experience in the study sparked an interest in science that culminated in medical school — recalls it being the highest level found in the study.

To this day, Burmeister’s parents regularly buy a case of gallon-sized water jugs at the grocery store to use for drinking and cooking. Despite the inconvenience, Burmeister said his parents feel it is a more affordable way to address their arsenic problem than drilling a new well or purchasing a water treatment system.

The Burmeisters are not the only family having to find alternatives to turning on the tap; arsenic is a major concern in Outagamie and Winnebago counties. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources designated an arsenic advisory area in these counties in 1993 and implemented stricter regulations for testing and well construction in 2004 and 2014.

But arsenic problems are not confined to northeastern Wisconsin. Levels above the federal standard have been detected in 51 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, according to a 2006 Wisconsin Groundwater Coordinating Council report.

The most serious health effects from arsenic exposure include a variety of cancers, nerve damage, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Chronic low-level exposure during childhood has also been linked to decreased intelligence.

In a 2014 study, researchers studying schoolchildren in Maine found regular consumption of drinking water containing 5 ppb of arsenic or more was associated with a significant IQ reduction in students in grades three to five.

“The magnitude of the association … raises the possibility that levels (of arsenic in drinking water) that are not uncommon in the United States pose a threat to child development,” the researchers wrote.

Human activity can mobilize arsenic

In 2001, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lowered the federal health standard, or maximum contaminant level, for arsenic in public drinking water from 50 to 10 ppb. This step reflected the increasing scientific evidence for the dangers of arsenic exposure to human health and matched the World Health Organization’s global drinking water standard.

The highest level ever detected in the state was found in a private well in northeastern Wisconsin. The well tested at 15,000 ppb — 1,500 times the new federal threshold.

“We have an arsenic hot spot in Wisconsin,” said John Luczaj, a geoscience associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

Madeline Gotkowitz, a hydrogeologist at the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, agreed. “Arsenic is a big problem in Wisconsin, and I don’t think many realize that,” she said.

In 1987, the DNR discovered that the St. Peter Sandstone aquifer in northeastern Wisconsin contains a high concentration of sulfide minerals which, when exposed to oxygen, can break down into arsenic. Knowing that it was the water source of more than 20,000 private wells, agency officials knew this might spell trouble.

“Seymour High School rests directly above the St. Peter Sandstone formation,” science teacher Rohr said. “So arsenic was the main focus (of our water study) as it impacted our local community the most.”

The oxygen that sets off the breakdown of sulfide minerals can be introduced by well drilling and disinfection methods, or when the water table — the level below which the ground is saturated with water — is drawn down. This may occur during periods of drought, or be triggered by human use, such as the operation of high-capacity wells.

Because of this interplay between geology and human activity, Luczaj said, private wells whose water previously tested fine for arsenic may lose their integrity.

Patrick Laughrin is all too familiar with the effect of high-capacity wells in his part of the state. He lives in Hilbert in Calumet County, just east of Winnebago County.

“The arsenic in our well showed up for the first time when the high-capacity wells came in and dropped the water table,” Laughrin said. “It makes sense. If you drop the water table, you get more oxygen and that releases more arsenic into your water.”

State steps up regulation

In 2004, the DNR introduced tougher arsenic laws in Winnebago and Outagamie counties. With 20 percent of the private well samples there analyzed in 1992-93 exceeding the EPA’s new health standard of 10 ppb, this area was thought to pose the greatest exposure threat to the largest number of residents. The new regulation required all drilling and disinfection methods to minimize the exposure of sulfide rocks to oxygen.

For Luczaj, of UW-Green Bay, this was a step in the right direction, but he said it may not go far enough.

“The geology doesn’t stop at political boundaries,” Luczaj said. “The area definitely extends into the neighboring counties. It’s pretty likely that we’ll see increasing problems as aquifers get drawn down.”

A 2013 study of 3,868 private wells from across the state found 2.4 percent of them exceeded arsenic levels of 10 ppb. If that proportion was applied to all of the estimated 940,000 households on private wells in Wisconsin — a calculation endorsed by the study’s lead author — residents of 22,560 homes may be consuming unsafe levels of the chemical.

Testing, grants rarely used

The DNR has a well compensation grant program that makes residents whose well water exceeds 50 ppb of arsenic — five times the federal standard — eligible for up to $9,000 to drill a new well. The program can be used to address other types of contamination as well.

However, during the past five years, only 10 or fewer grants were awarded per year. Households whose water contains up to 49 ppb — almost 10 times the amount of arsenic shown to impact a child’s intellectual development — have to cover the cost of a new well on their own, or pay for other options that will make their water safe to drink.

To reduce arsenic exposure, people must be aware of its presence in their drinking water in the first place. But with a mere 16 percent of private well owners in Wisconsin estimated to test their water annually, the number of residents who are unaware is large.

Raising that awareness was part of Rohr’s goals when he began his water study in 2003. In 2014 — 11 years after Rohr’s study — the DNR revised its arsenic regulation yet again, recognizing the persistent nature of Wisconsin’s arsenic problem.

This time, the new state law required that arsenic, in addition to coliform bacteria and nitrate, be tested at the time of a property transfer, but only if the buyer requests a well inspection. The same three contaminants also have to be tested after the completion of certain well repair work, such as fixing a broken water pump.

Bad wells replaced by city water

Some communities in Wisconsin have addressed their arsenic problem by offering citizens a switch from private to municipal water. City water is required by law to be tested regularly for arsenic, which takes the burden of monitoring water quality off the homeowners’ shoulders.

The Stilson family in Oshkosh took advantage of the opportunity to switch in 2000, following several years of having bottled water delivered to their home after the level of arsenic in their well rose to 999 ppb, or nearly 100 times the health standard.

“We said, ‘Let’s just get city water and get it over with,’ ” Lynn Stilson said.

When drilling a new well is too expensive, a switch to city water not possible, or purchasing bottled water too big a hassle, another remediation option is to install an in-home water treatment system. The most cost-effective method is called a reverse osmosis system, which removes 95 percent of arsenic, as well as other contaminants.

Luczaj said vigilance is the key to avoiding arsenic, since human activity can increase the amount of the naturally occurring contaminant in well water. “A one-time test for arsenic is not at all sufficient,” he said.

Gabrielle Menard and Elise Bayer, students in the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication, contributed to this story. This report was produced as part of journalism classes participating in The Confluence, a collaborative project involving the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Judge: DNR can’t impose requirements on wells at large farms

Wisconsin environmental officials can’t impose groundwater monitoring requirements as a condition for high-capacity well permits, an Appleton judge has ruled in a decision that could have far-reaching effects on well construction across the state.

Outagamie County Judge Mark McGinnis ruled from the bench that the state Department of Natural Resources lacks the explicit authority to impose such requirements and a 2011 state law eliminated the agency’s broad authority to create such requirements.

Business groups hailed the decision, saying it validates the law and prevents regulatory overreach.

“(The ruling) shows that the days of regulating by bureaucratic fiat are over,” Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s chamber of commerce, said in a statement.

Environmental groups, meanwhile, said the decision sets a terrible precedent and will prohibit the DNR from monitoring high-capacity wells’ impact on Wisconsin waters.

“Monitoring is a really common sense tool,” said Elizabeth Wheeler, an attorney for Clean Wisconsin. “If they’re not able to do that, there’s no accountability there.”

The extent of the DNR’s authority to regulate high-capacity wells, which the agency defines as a well that can that pump at least 70 gallons per minute, has been a hot-button issue in Wisconsin for years as factory farms sink more of them to supply water for their herds and other farmers look for large-scale ways to irrigate crops.

Conservationists fear the wells have been depleting groundwater, lakes and streams, particularly in the state’s central sands region. According to the DNR, more than 2,000 high-capacity wells currently operate in that area.

A state appeals court ruled in 2010 that the DNR has broad authority to consider how high-capacity wells might harm the state’s waters. Republican lawmakers reacted by passing a law the following year that prohibits state agencies from imposing any permit conditions that aren’t expressly laid out in state statute. Two months after Gov. Scott Walker signed the law, the state Supreme Court upheld the appellate ruling saying the DNR has general authority. The high court didn’t consider the new law in its deliberations.

Last year, New Chester Dairy filed a lawsuit challenging conditions the DNR attached to a permit for two high-capacity wells at its Adams County facility in the central sands. The agency told the dairy it had to monitor groundwater levels and make quarterly reports.

McGinnis ruled that under the 2011 law, the DNR needs explicit authority to impose such conditions and can’t rely on implied authority.

A DNR spokesman declined comment. Wheeler, Clean Wisconsin’s attorney, said the ruling is a strict interpretation of the law and leaves the DNR without any tools to protect the state’s waters from high-capacity wells.

Sen. Rob Cowles, R-Green Bay, has introduced a bill that would allow the DNR to impose conditions on high-capacity wells but only to protect navigable waters. If the agency believes a well is depleting surface waters, it could ask legislators for permission to impose stricter conditions.

The measure got a cool reception during a public hearing last month. Conservationists complained the bill is too weak and farmers argue it would inject uncertainty into the permitting process.

UPDATED: Racial justice advocates, environmentalists oppose water diversion to Waukesha

UPDATED: A coalition of progressive, racial justice groups in Wisconsin is opposing Waukesha’s quest to divert water from Lake Michigan.

The announcement was released on Aug. 28, meeting a deadline for public comment to the state on the issue.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources held three public hearings earlier in August to hear testimony on the city of Waukesha’s Great Lakes Water Diversion application and in response to the department’s release of its draft Environmental Impact Statement and Technical Review on June 25. The DNR held hearings in the cities of Waukesha, Milwaukee and Racine and saw well over 450 attendees, of which at least 100 provided verbal testimony to the DNR.

In addition, comments were submitted to the DNR outside the hearings.

Cheryl Nenn of Milwaukee Riverkeeper, said, “We were impressed but in no way surprised at the great turn out at all three public hearings. This is an important issue for our state and our region and a decision that will affect people’s lives and our Great Lakes, which are only 1 percent renewable by rain or snowmelt. The number of people at the hearings sends a very clear message to the DNR that the public is taking this diversion decision very seriously and they should too.”

The NAACP-Milwaukee Branch, Milwaukee Inner-City Congregations Allied for Hope, the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin and environmental attorney Dennis Grzezinski filed comments with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The groups asked the state to deny Waukesha’s application for diversion of water from Lake Michigan.

The groups object to the application because diverting water to the suburbs will worsen segregation and racial disparities in the region, according to a news release.

“Thus far, the environmental impact study has utterly failed to address, much less resolve, the needs and concerns of communities of color,” said Karyn Rotker, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Wisconsin.

“Allowing a Lake Michigan water diversion to enable continued unrestrained sprawl and job migration will have the inevitable effect of perpetuating racial and economic segregation in the region, to the clear disadvantage of persons of color, especially African-Americans,” stated Fred Royal, president of the Milwaukee Branch of the NAACP.

The release from the coalition said it is one thing for a water diversion application to seek to serve an existing community that has no other alternative. It is quite another for a community to seek to divert water not only to meet its current needs, but to support and undergird industrial, commercial and residential expansion — especially when the benefits of that expansion exclude communities of color, mostly African-Americans, in the region.

“And the requested diversion is not needed to serve an existing “community” in need of water, as the Great Lakes Compact requires,” said Grzezinski.

As comments and studies submitted by others, such as the Compact Implementation Coalition, make clear, the city of Waukesha could meet its water needs without diverting Lake Michigan water. That it wants more water to support future growth and expansion outside the city limits does not justify the diversion, the coalition said.

“If a diversion is not used to increase development in the Waukesha suburbs, then there’s more incentive for those jobs and employers to locate or relocate in the city of Milwaukee,” added the Rev. Willie Brisco, MICAH president. “And we all know that is something our community needs.”

Also, on Aug. 28, environmental groups in Compact Implementation Coalition of environmental groups planned to submit comments “to the DNR expressing concerns that the city of Waukesha: 1) has not justified why it needs a daily maximum supply that is more than double its current use; 2) does not consider all reasonable alternatives to provide potable water for its residents; and 3) has not removed its request to divert Great Lakes water to communities who do not need it and who have not employed water conservation measures. The Compact requires these actions before an entity can request an exception from the ban on diversions.”

The CIC comments were written by more than a dozen legal and technical experts from nine local, state and regional environmental organizations.

“While the CIC’s comments will be some of the more extensive comments in opposition to Waukesha’s request for Great Lakes water, they will not be the only ones,” said Ezra Meyer of Clean Wisconsin. “People from all across the Great Lakes Basin and across Wisconsin care about this world-class resource. They fought hard to see the Great Lakes Compact passed to protect the Lakes for the long run and now they don’t want to see the compact or the lakes compromised. People from Ohio, Michigan and Illinois came to DNR’s hearings last week to tell our natural resources protection agency to say no, as did dozens of people from Racine, Milwaukee and Waukesha. Residents and ratepayers in Waukesha know this is a bad deal. We are confident that the written comments submitted to the DNR by today’s deadline will reflect an even broader base of grassroots support for the Great Lakes and against Waukesha’s fatally flawed proposal.”

Since the DNR released its draft Environmental Impact Statement and Technical Review on June 25, the CIC has been working to make sure the public is aware of the consequences of approving Waukesha’s water diversion application as it stands.

“What happens in Waukesha doesn’t stay in Waukesha. People from all across the Great Lakes region are concerned that Waukesha’s diversion application does not meet the requirements in the Great Lakes Compact,” said Marc Smith, policy director at the National Wildlife Federation. 

“The public has spoken: Waukesha’s application to divert Great Lakes water is not in the best interests of the Great Lakes region,” said Jodi Habush Sinykin of Midwest Environmental Advocates. “Wisconsin DNR must maintain the integrity of the Great Lakes Compact in both letter and spirit, by holding Waukesha’s application to its requirements and by making certain the science is sound, the data current, and the public’s questions answered before the application is approved.”

The DNR plans to release its final decision in December.

If approved by the Wisconsin DNR, all eight Great Lakes states governors will have the power to approve or deny the proposal and the premiers of two Canadian provinces will formally weigh in on the decision. 

Wisconsinites ask court to block rail expansion through marsh pending legal review

La Crosse area citizens suing over a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources permit for a Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway rail line expansion through the La Crosse River Marsh want the court to put the permit on hold while the legal challenge is considered.

“Petitioners took this action today because the court has the power and discretion to put a hold on the permit so that citizens have their day in court before the damage to the marsh is done,” said Sarah Williams, staff attorney for the Midwest Environmental Advocates. “It is particularly important that the court grant citizens’ request for a stay as soon as possible because BNSF is now allowed to continue constructing in the marsh during the endangered black tern nesting period.” 

The challenge is not only on the direct impacts to the 7.2 acres of wetlands that railway company would fill, but also on the indirect and cumulative impacts of the project. The Wisconsin Environmental Policy Act, according to the MEA, requires the DNR to prepare an environmental analysis including indirect and cumulative impacts of the project.

The MEA said the DNR’s failure to disclose and consider numerous and significant environmental impacts that may result from the project demonstrates the permitting program does not provide an environmental analysis equivalent to that required by WEPA.

Numerous residents of La Crosse and the surrounding area raised concerns about the project, including:

• The risk of environmental harm and threat to public safety from a train derailment carrying hazardous materials such as crude oil.

• Disturbance to neighbors of the tracks from increased noise, vibration and air pollution from more and more frequent trains passing through.

• The incremental impact of another wetland fill in the La Crosse River Marsh, which already has been reduced to half its size from previous developments.

• Impacts from construction and operation of the second track on the Mississippi River, which is adjacent to and downstream from the La Crosse River Marsh.

MEA said the DNR failed to consider these impacts in the permitting decision.

Citizens also raised concerns about the impacts of the project on threatened and endangered species in the marsh. Throughout the permitting process, the DNR has received numerous comments from the public about the importance of the marsh for bald eagles, black terns, Northern long-eared bats and other species for which the marsh is a nesting ground, provides habitat or serves as a stop along an international migratory path. 

In spite of significant public concern and involvement regarding impacts to these sensitive species, the DNR issued an amendment to the BNSF permit that allows construction in the marsh during black tern nesting, which was prohibited in the original BNSF permit. The DNR made this change to the BNSF permit without a public notice and comment period.

The DNR subsequently imposed additional conditions on construction during black tern nesting and created a construction avoidance zone. However, the DNR’s process of amending the permit without notice and modifying permit conditions through a separate authorization creates a moving target and does not allow for meaningful public involvement, according to the MEA.

A hearing for the motion to stay the permit is scheduled for June 22.

Kudos to Wisconsin Republicans for standing up to Scott Walker’s wrecking-ball budget

We often use this space to criticize the Republican Party of Wisconsin for putting the interests of its wealthy supporters above those of voters. So it’s with pleasure that we acknowledge the integrity a number of GOP lawmakers have shown in standing up to Gov. Scott Walker’s wrecking-ball of a budget.

To clarify, WiG does not support the budget in its current state, and no one knows exactly what the final budget will look like when it comes to a vote in early June. Between now and then, there will be a lot of horse-trading on budgetary items.

But we applaud the wrangling. In 2011, Walker presented a drastic budget that his Republican majority rubber-stamped without debate or analysis. The results were disastrous.

This year, confronted with a budget that’s even more destructive, GOP leaders have balked. They’ve listened to thousands of Wisconsinites who’ve turned out for public hearings and listening sessions on the budget and they’ve concluded that some of its key proposals would cause great harm to the state without providing in return a sustainable solution for resolving Walker’s self-created budget crisis.

GOP lawmakers have learned a lot by listening: that Wisconsinites value education over tax rebates for already profitable corporations; that citizens treasure our natural resources and want them maintained for future generations; that people across the political spectrum are outraged over Walker’s proposal to eliminate popular grassroots programs enabling the elderly and disabled to remain in their homes. (That last proposal will not save the state a dollar and has already cost Wisconsin 700 jobs, but it frees up millions for Walker to award to his for-profit insurance industry cronies.)

Polling has confirmed voter resistance to key budget proposals. A Marquette University Law School poll found 70 percent oppose Walker’s plan to cut University of Wisconsin funding by $300 million, while only 26 percent support it. The poll found 78 percent oppose Walker’s plan to reduce funding for K-12 schools by another $127 million. Sixty percent of those polled oppose Walker’s plan to make the Department of Natural Resources an advisory board — a plan that Republicans in the Legislature have already stripped from the budget.

And 54 percent of voters oppose Walker’s plan eliminating enrollment limits in the private school voucher program, another item that GOP lawmakers have already said will not be adopted as proposed.

To their credit and the state’s benefit, GOP legislative leaders have indicated that none of these proposals will be enacted as proposed. And they will succeed: Walker is eager to move forward with his presidential campaign and he’s not likely to risk a protracted, high-profile battle over positions that appeal only to fringe-right Republican Iowa caucus voters.

In an aside, GOP legislators also appear poised to prevent a repeal of the state’s “prevailing wage” law. Enacted in 1931, the law ensures that government contractors must pay standard wages to workers, which prevents underbidding on projects by businesses that don’t pay for skilled labor. The result is shoddy public works, fewer consumer dollars circulating in the economy and downward pressure on the pay scale for everyone.

For the first time since Walker took office, we see meaningful bipartisan dialogue occurring in Madison. It appears that Republican lawmakers are seriously considering input from the other of the aisle.

To be sure, the state has far to go in bridging the political divide created by Walker’s self-professed “divide-and-conquer” strategy. Gerrymandering has given the Republicans an ironclad majority, an unhealthy political situation that enables autocratic rule.

But just as we’re experiencing the first mild breezes of spring, we can sense something of a thaw in Madison that gives us hope.

Group offers reward for info on illegal wolf kills in Great Lakes region

A recently established group is offering a $1,500 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone who illegally kills a wolf in the Great Lakes region.

Great Lakes Patrol says it created the reward program in response to recent wolf killings in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It says another factor was the appearance of Facebook sites promoting unlawful attacks on the predators.

Founder Rod Coronado says members will circulate reward posters around the towns of Newberry and Gulliver, where dead wolves were discovered.

Rewards will be offered for other illegal kills in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Great Lakes Wolf Patrol says it was founded this year to monitor legal wolf hunts and worked with Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources to investigate illegal wolf trapping during the October hunt.

Wisconsin wants to add 192 waterways to polluted list

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is proposing adding 192 waterways to a list of those that don’t meet water quality standards.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported most of the new additions have excessive levels of phosphorus, which spurs weed and algae growth.

State officials list impaired lakes, rivers and streams every two years as part of the federal Clean Water Act, which requires states to prioritize problem waterways and create plans to get them into compliance.

There are already more than 700 waters listed as impaired in Wisconsin, including many sections of the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic rivers. DNR officials say about 75 percent of the waters it monitors have shown trends of improving over the long term.

Still, it can be hard for a polluted river to improve enough to get removed from the list. This year, the proposed list includes 17 waters the DNR wants removed, including the KK Road Beach on Lake Michigan in Sheboygan County for E. coli and three Madison beaches, including in James Madison Park on Lake Mendota, also for bacteria pollution.

Seven bodies of water, including most of the Gile Flowage in Iron County, were removed because of declining levels of mercury.

The list now goes to the public for input, and it must be reviewed by the Environmental Protection Agency. Two years ago, the EPA told the DNR to add more than 100 waters after concluding the state wasn’t following its own standards.

Brian Weigel, water quality section chief for the DNR, told the newspaper that the DNR doesn’t expect that will happen again because the state has more experience classifying waters for phosphorus.

Phosphorus is a nutrient in fertilizer and comes from yards, manure and wastewater treatment plants. The DNR says a growing number of waterways are being listed for the pollutant because phosphorus regulations with specific numeric limits in 2010 are just being assessed.

Business groups and an organization representing more than 100 wastewater utilities say the new regulations are too complex and costly. They are pushing legislation that would give them more time — up to 20 years — to comply with new standards. Environmentalists say the groups are trying to avoid stricter regulations.

Tensions flare between Wisconsin DNR, Gogebic Taconite

Tensions between state regulators and a company that wants to bring an open pit iron mine to northern Wisconsin could be a signal of more conflict yet to come.

Gogebic Taconite and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources got into a public dispute last week over how much regulatory authority remains in the agency’s hands after Republicans in 2013 enacted a law that rolled back environmental restrictions to make mining easier.

The dispute over what is and isn’t allowed under the untested mining law may be a preview of what’s to come when the company seeks a mining permit, the Wisconsin State Journal reported Sunday.

Letters illustrating the tensions were posted on the DNR website last week. The company objected to a DNR research document that listed environmental hazards of mining, which the company considered biased, and it sharply criticized the extent of agency questions about Gogebic’s plans to dig up rock for testing.

“All of the tests and modeling we’ve done cost money,” company spokesman Bob Seitz said. “(Some studies cost) tens of thousands of dollars a crack. So this should be about what’s necessary and not what’s wanted to satisfy curiosity.”

Seitz said multiple rounds of questions from the DNR have delayed completion of its plan for collecting bulk samples from the site in Iron and Ashland counties.

Sen. Bob Jauch, a Democrat whose district includes the mine site near Mellen, accused the company of “bullying” tactics.

Gogebic Taconite’s tough tone will backfire if the DNR is forced to deny the company’s final mining permit because the company fails to provide needed data within the new law’s tightened timeline for decision by the state, Jauch said.

Meanwhile, the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters issued a statement to supporters highlighting the developments and problems with the proposed mine.

Kerry Schumann, the group’s executive director, referred to reports: that Gogebic president Bill Williams faces allegations of violating environmental laws in connection with the development of a copper mine, that the leaked DNR report says Gogebic’s proposed mine in Wisconsin presents a threat to “human health and clean water” and that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says Wisconsin’s new fast-track mining law would slow the approval process because it’s inconsistent with federal law.

Calling Wisconsinites to action, Schumann stated, “Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters knew from day one that Bill Williams and Gogebic Taconite couldn’t be trusted. Unfortunately, their friends in power at the Capitol gave them a free pass to pollute our air, land, and water.”

“GTAC and other corporate polluters have no more allegiance to our home state of Wisconsin than to a foreign country like Spain. To them, your favorite places in Wisconsin – its land and water – are just commodities with dollar signs on them.”