CAFOs are back in the news in Wisconsin. Profit continues to be more important than  public health, clean water, or the common good. Here is an update on what is happening.   

CAFO’s (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) are large factory farms. A huge Iowa pork producer is planning to build one with 26,000 pigs just upstream from Chequamegon Bay in Bayfield County. The proposed site is in the Fish Creek watershed which enters the Bay just west of Ashland.  Ashland draws its municipal water supply from the bay.   

This CAFO is still in the works. In a July 8th interview on Wisconsin Public Television, Mary Dougherty of Farms Not Factories, the local group opposing the CAFO, said the proposal is all but a “done deal.” The Walker administration’s priorities for the DNR are to implement his “open for business” philosophy rather than protecting the environment or public health. She said that the DNR intends to let the CAFO go ahead if the operator “fills out his paperwork correctly.”

The Bayfield County board passed a strict ordinance (stricter than state law) to regulate the handling of manure from CAFOs. In July the DNR killed their ordinance. Bayfield has appealed. The DNR says the reason for overriding the county ordinance is that it attempted to regulate future large farms rather than dealing with current water quality issues. Apparently prevention of pollution is not a priority under this administration. They prefer to wait until we have a disaster like Kewaunee County where 30% of the private well water is unsafe to drink.

The Town of Saratoga in Wood County has similar problems. Since 2012 the town has been fighting the proposed Golden Sands Dairy which would house 5,300 animals, and produce 55 million gallons of liquid manure and 25,000 tons of solid manure each year. The soil in the area is sandy so surface spreading of manure would filter into the groundwater.  Almost all of the 5,000 residents are on private, shallow wells. Groundwater monitoring wells near the existing Central Sands Dairy (with the same owners) in Juneau County (similar soils) show nitrate pollution exceeding safe drinking water standards.  The town has recently passed an ordinance to regulate manure spreading but it may be overridden by the county or DNR.

The latest issue in the news is the DNR plan to allow consultants to write permits for CAFOs. This is part of a proposed DNR “reorganization” to deal with the problems of staff shortages and workloads. According to Gov. Walker the changes are to make the agency “more effective and more efficient.” He claims this would free up staff to “spend less time on burdensome paperwork and more time on enforcing the laws and regulations of the state.”

Given that DNR staffing problems were created by budget and staffing cuts, this is a disingenuous argument. Unfortunately the DNR has has been the target of cuts under both parties for many years. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel says DNR employment has dropped by 18% since 1995. The DNR has 350 existing vacancies in an agency of about 2,500 employees. The Walker administration has exacerbated the problem. Last year they eliminated 19 science researchers who had been working on a number of politically charged issues, including climate change, pollution and mining. According to the Journal Sentinel, the proposed 2017-19 budget increases the staffing in the CAFO program to 21 but only 2 positions would be for field staff to monitor the CAFO operations. Overall the next budget calls for more DNR position cuts.

In June a state audit of the DNR water protection efforts found the agency wasn’t following its own policies for policing pollution from large farms and wastewater treatment plants. The agency for years has been extending permits without review. The DNR staff didn’t have the time to thoroughly monitor large livestock operations.

As is typical of conservative anti-government practices, after you have assured government ineffectiveness though budget and staff cuts, the next step is to contract out important public functions. Thus the politicians  propose to use private, for profit consultants. This is a classic example of conducting public business for private advantage.

Contracting out of government functions often costs more and produces poorer results     than using public employees. According to the Journal Sentinel, the current annual fee for a CAFO permit is $350. The DNR receives $95 of that amount and the rest goes into the state’s general fund. It should be obvious to anyone that $95 is not going to cover the cost of processing complicated, technical permit applications or to provide for adequate monitoring of the situation. In comparison your car license costs $75 a year and a residential building permit can cost more than $350! It should also be obvious that private consultants are not going to do this work for $95 either. Both the public and the farm owners will pay more. The CAFO operators will pay much more to get permits. The public will pay with polluted water, lose of property values, extreme odor problems, and future clean up costs. As the audit report shows using past experience, DNR staff will merely rubber stamp the paperwork they have neither the time nor the data to challenge.    

This is recipe for future water quality disasters. According to DNR figures, the number of large farms in Wisconsin rose from 44 in 2000 to 285 in 2016 or an increase of 548%. It should be obvious that more “farms” generating untreated sewage, in volumes the size of cities, is going to be bad for everyone. Cheap food that pollutes our water, land, and air is NOT CHEAP. We should not allow short term profit, or short term low food prices, to override long term community good. It should be obvious that strong regulation, monitoring, and sewage disposal requirements are needed for CAFOs.