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Battle shaping up around sensitive area rulemaking for runoff management
Nitrate Leaching

SOUTHWEST WISCONSIN - In July at a press conference in Watertown Governor Tony Evers was joined by Representative Kristina Shankland (D-Stevens Point), Co-Chair of the Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality; and Secretaries Bradley Pfaff of DATCP and Preston Cole of the DNR.

The four were there to announce the launch of a process whereby ‘sensitive area’ rules, similar to those enacted in 2018 for 15 counties in eastern Wisconsin, would be developed for all areas of the state underlain by karst geology and overlain by a shallow depth of soil to bedrock. The area is generally understood to be horseshoe in shape, running from the Green Bay area, down the east side of the state, across the southern part of the state, and then up the western side to about Trempealeau County.

This led to Governor Evers approving a scope statement for the rule revision process on August 9. In his communication to Secretaries and Agency Heads, it read:

“[On this day I approve..] A statement of scope by the Department of Natural Resources dated July 15, 2019, relating to targeted performance standards and prohibitions to abate pollution of groundwater by nitrate sensitive areas (Wis. Admin. Code chs. NR 151 and 243).

In the scope statement approved by Governor Evers, entities affected by the new rule would be rural residents with private wells, users of community and non-community wells, agricultural producers and their consultants, agricultural cooperatives and fertilizer retailers, county land conservation departments, and DATCP.

The scope statement specifices that the economic impact of the rulemaking would be ‘moderate,’ (between $50,000 and $5 million per year combined for all stakeholders). It will likely have an impact on small businesses, namely agricultural producers and supporting businesses – the level of impact is currently indeterminate and will be assessed during the rulemaking process.

The scope statement describes the purpose of the proposed rule 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 DNR has found that surface water quality standards or groundwater standards in sensitive areas will not be attained by simply implementing the statewide performance standards and prohibitions and, pursuant to NR 151.004 Wis. Adm. Code, targeted performance standards are necessary to attain surface water quality standards or groundwater standards.

NR 151 is the state administrative rule pertaining to Runoff Management. NR 243 is the state administrative rule pertaining to Animal Feeding Operations.

The scope statement goes on to say, the rule revisions will define sensitive areas in the state and the performance standards needed to protect surface and groundwater quality in these areas. Soil maps based, in part, on soil permeability in conjunction with groundwater quality information may be used to define sensitive areas. Information related to soil permeability, groundwater quality, and modeling may be used to refine sensitive area designations. Performance standards may include modifications to: nutrient management plans; application rates of manure or commercial fertilizer; timing of nutrient application; crop rotations; setbacks from drinking water supplies for manure and fertilizer applications; and additional changes or management practices expected to achieve surface water quality standards and groundwater standards in sensitive areas.

New, and perhaps most noteworthy, the scope statement states baldly that:

Nitrate is the most widespread groundwater contaminant in Wisconsin and it is especially prevalent in areas with highly permeable soils. Evidence suggests that the statewide standards are insufficient to achieve surface water quality and groundwater standards in areas with highly permeable soils. Highly permeable soils may be found throughout the state, and the proposed target standards that are developed as part of this rulemaking effort will apply only to these sensitive areas.

Nass intervenes

Scope statements are intended to be very broad statements of what is and what is not intended to be addressed by a process or project. It is common for a scope statement not to contain a great deal of specific information – that will come later with development of goals and objectives.

The rule development is being very closely monitored by industry groups such as Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC).

“The new restrictions could force livestock farmers to rent or buy more land for [manure] spreading,” WMC senior vice president of government relations Scott Manley said. “Some farmers could be forced to inject manure into the soil to prevent runoff, a more costly procedure than spreading.”

CAFOs, large row crop and vegetable farmers, and other agricultural industry businesses such as consultants, agricultural cooperatives and fertilizer retailers with conceivably something to lose, appear to be very concerned about what could come out of the rulemaking process. For this reason, it appears members of the majority party in the state legislature are taking what steps they can to slow the process down.

Wisconsin State Senator Steve Nass (R-Whitewater), who co-chairs the state legislature’s committee on administrative rules, has acted to slow the rulemaking process down by ordering DNR officials to hold a public hearing on the scope statement before they ask the Natural Resources Board to authorize work on the actual rule.

A communication from Senator Nass to DNR Secretary Preston Cole, dated August 27, read:

As co-chairperson of the Join Committee for Review of Administrative Rules and pursuant to s. 227.136(1), Stats., I write to direct the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to hold a preliminary public hearing and comment period on Scope Statements SS 077-19, which was published in the Wisconsin Administrative Register on August 19, 2019.

Additionally, pursuant to s. 227.135(2), Stats., please note that a scope statement may not be approved by the Secretary of the DNR or other boards and individuals within the department until after the preliminary public hearing and comment period are held by the agency, and accordingly, no activity may be conducted in connection with the drafting of  proposed rule until after such hearing and approval have occurred.

NRB to act

At their meeting to be held on Tuesday, September 24, in Mishicot, Wisconsin, the Natural Resources Board will vote on whether to authorize a public hearing on the scope statement to be held on Tuesday, October 8, in Madison.

Written comments on this decision are welcome, and can be submitted by contacting Laurie Ross, NRB Liaison, at 608-267-7420 or by email at The agency contact person is Daniela Branco,, 608-266-7524.

The statement of scope can be viewed online at, and reads as follows:

RuleNo.:      WT-19-19


Relating to:  Targeted Performance Standards and Prohibitions to abate pollution of groundwater by nitrate in sensitive areas


RuleType:     Permanent


1. Finding/natureofemergency (Emergency  Rule only): The rules will be proposed as permanent rules.

2.Detailed description of the objective of the proposed rule:


The purpose of the proposed revisions to ch.NR151, Wis. Adm. Code, and limited incorporation by reference  of those proposed revisions to ch.NR243, is to establish agricultural non point 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.Pursuant to s.281.16(3)(a),Stats.,the Department of Natural Resources is directed to promulgate by rule non point source performance standards and prohibitions that are designed to comply with state surface water quality standards  and groundwater quality standards.Where statewide non point source performance standards have been substantially implemented, they have not proven sufficient to achieve surface water quality standards or

groundwater standards in sensitive areas.The department  has found that surface water quality standards  or groundwater standards in sensitive areas will not be attained by simply implementing the statewide performance standards  and prohibitions and, pursuant to NR151.004 Wis. Admin Code, targeted performance standards are necessary to attain surface water quality standards or groundwater standards.


The rule revisions will define sensitive  areas in the state and the performance standards needed to protect surface and groundwater quality in these areas.Soil maps based, in part, on soil permeability  in conjunction with groundwater quality information  may be used to define sensitive areas.Information related to soil permeability,  groundwater quality, and modeling may be used to refine sensitive area designations.Performance standards may include modifications  to: nutrient management  plans; application rates of manure or commercial fertilizer; timing of nutrient application; crop rotations; setbacks  from drinking water supplies  for manure and fertilizer applications; and additional changes  or management practices expected to achieve surface water quality standards  and groundwater standards  in the sensitive areas.


3.Description of the existing policies relevant to the rule, new  policies proposed to be included in the rule, and an analysis of policy alternatives:


The current Subch. II of ch.NR151(Agricultural Performance Standards and Prohibitions) was originally promulgated in 2002 and revised in 2010 and 2018.It contains statewide performance standards and prohibitions for agricultural and nonagricultural facilities designed to achieve surface water quality standards and groundwater standards. Section NR151.004 provides for targeted performance standards to be created if the statewide standards are insufficient to achieve surface water quality standards or groundwater standards in sensitive areas. In 2018, the targeted performance standard at NR151.075 was created to reduce the risk of groundwater contamination posed by pathogens from manure applied to land in areas of the state with shallow soils over Silurian dolomite bedrock.

Existing facilities are not required to comply with the agricultural performance standards or prohibitions unless cost sharing is made available. The department has already promulgated rules under which cost sharing is made available and those rules will apply to this proposed targeted performance standard.


Nitrate is the most widespread groundwater contaminant in Wisconsin and it is especially prevalent in areas with highly permeable soils. Evidence suggests that the statewide standards are insufficient to achieve surface water quality and groundwater standards in areas with highly permeable soils. Highly permeable soils may be found throughout the state, and the proposed target standards that are developed as part of this rule making effort will only apply to the sensitive areas.


4.  Detailed explanation of statutory authority for the rule (including the statutory citation and language):


State water and sewage statute at ch.281 Stats.authorizes  the department to promulgate  agricultural performance standards to achieve surface water and groundwater quality standards.


Section281.16(3)(a)Stats.,authorizes  the department  to promulgate rules prescribing  performance standards  and prohibitions  for agricultural facilities and agricultural practices  that are non point sources. The performance standards  and prohibitions  shall be designed to achieve water quality standards  by limiting non point  source pollution.  "Non point source water pollution" is defined as pollution of waters of the state that does not result from a point source. Section281.16(1)(f),  Stats.


Waters of the state include surface water and groundwater. Sections281.01(18)and283.01(20) Stats define "Waters of the state" as those portions of Lake Michigan  and Lake Superior within the boundaries of this state, and all lakes, bays, rivers, streams,  springs, ponds, wells, impounding reservoirs,  marshes,  watercourses,  drainage systems and other surface water or groundwater, natural or artificial,  public or private, within this state or its jurisdiction.


Section NR151.004 Wis. Admin. Code clarifies that if the department finds that water quality standards or groundwater standards  will not be attained using statewide performance standards  and prohibitions, but the implementation of targeted performance standards would attain water quality standards or groundwater standards, the department shall promulgate  the targeted performance standards by rule.


State pollution discharge elimination  statute at ch.283 Stats.provides authority for the department to require agricultural  point sources to comply with agricultural performance standards which are protective of water quality standards.  Section283.31(3),Stats.,provides authority for the department to issue a permit for the discharge of any pollutant from a point source to waters of the state on condition that the discharges will meet groundwater protection standards and any more stringent limitations necessary to meet state water quality standards.  Section283.31(4),Stats provides authority to proscribe conditions for permits that assure compliance with the requirements of s.283.31(3)Stats. Section283.13(5),  Stats. provides  authority to include more stringent limitations  in permits when necessary to meet water quality standards  or other state requirements.


Section227.11(2)(a)(intro.),Stats., provides that a state agency, "may promulgate rules interpreting the provisions of any statute enforced or administered by the agency, if the agency considers it necessary to effectuate the purpose of the statute", subject to certain restrictions.


5.  Estimate of amount of time that state employees will spend developing the rule and of other resources necessary to develop the rule:


It is estimated that department  employees  wills pend approximately 3,000 hours developing this rule. This estimate  includes staff time related to obtaining advice and comments from stakeholders through a technical advisory committee.


6.List with description of all entities that may be affected by the proposed rule:


Entities affected by this rule include: rural residents with private wells; users of community and non­

community  wells; agricultural producers  and their consultants; agricultural cooperatives and fertilizer retailers; county land conservation departments; and the Wisconsin Department  of Agriculture,  Trade and Consumer  Protection (DATCP).


7.Summary and preliminary comparison with any existing or proposed federal regulation that is intended to address the activities to be regulated by the proposed rule:


The United States Department of Agriculture-Natural Resources  Conservation Service(NRCS) develops  technical standards that apply to agricultural  facilities and practices.Technical  standards may be required for agricultural producers to qualify for federal grant or cost-share assistance, and to qualify for state tax credits through the Farmland Preservation Program administered by DATCP. Applicable NRCS technical standards will be incorporated in this ch.NR151 targeted performance standard by reference.


8.Anticipated economic impact of implementing the rule (note if the rule is likely to have a significant economic impact on small businesses):


It is estimated that the economic impact of this rule making would be"moderate"(between$50,000and$5 million per year, combined for all impacted stakeholders).It will likely have an impact on small business, namely agricultural producers and supporting businesses-the level of impact is currently indeterminate and will be assessed durin the rule makin gprocess.


9.Anticipated number, month and locations of public hearings:


The department anticipates holding three to four public hearings in the spring of 2021. Hearing locations will likely be: WisconsinRapids, LaCrosse ,and Madison.

If the scope for rulemaking is approved, then the process calls for at least three or four public input hearings to be held in the spring of 2021, with likely locations to be Wisconsin Rapids, LaCrosse and Madison.