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Public input sought on economic impacts of proposed nitrate rule
Comment period ends Saturday, April 10
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DRIFTLESS - Most have heard about the drinking water problems in Kewaunee County, where residents have experienced brown water coming out of their taps that resulted in the Wisconsin legislature enacting ‘sensitive area’ targeted performance standards for manure runoff in 15 counties on the east side of the state in 2018.

Out of those headlines came the SWIGG Study, a water quality testing effort in Grant, Iowa and Lafayette counties. SWIGG round one results in November 2018 showed 42 percent of wells sampled were contaminated with either nitrate or coliform bacteria. This prompted Representative Robin Vos, Speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly, to form a Speaker’s Task Force on water quality, which held hearings all over the state. 

Also, in 2019, Governor Tony Evers declared the ‘Year of Clean Drinking Water.’ He directed DATCP, WDNR and the Department of Health Services to collaborate in addressing the widespread problem of nitrate contamination in the state’s drinking water. 

Chris Clayton from WDNR convened a technical advisory committee (TAC) to determine which areas of the state might require more targeted runoff management performance standards than the state’s one-size-fits-all rule. The state standards for safe drinking water for nitrate are 10 milligrams-per-liter or less.

Generally, the TAC’s work focused on areas with ‘P’ soils (porous, like sand); ‘R’ soils (rocky), and ‘W’ soils (wet soils). Water quality testing results in databases maintained by WDNR, United States Geo-logical Survey (USGS), and the Center for Watershed Science and Education in Stevens Point were re-viewed.

The basic question were:

• Where in the state are more targeted standards needed?

• What would those standards be?

The TAC met all through 2020, with their work con-fined to virtual meetings due to the pandemic. Stake-holders from the three agencies and representatives of diverse agricultural sec-tors were invited to participate in the process. The result is proposed targeted runoff performance standards for certain areas of the state.

As part of this effort, the DNR is preparing an eco-nomic impact analysis (EIA) for proposed rule WT-19-19 relating to nitrate pollution in groundwater.

The DNR will accept written comments on the EIA from the public until April 10, 2021. A separate public comment period on the rule itself will be held after the EIA is finalized.

To see a copy of the eco-nomic impact statement, go to:

Please submit written comments by email to or by mail:

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, c/o Mike Gilbertson – WT/3 , P.O. Box 7921, Madison, WI 53707.

A separate public comment period on the rule it-self will be held after the EIA is finalized, along with a public hearing. WDNR’s Chris Clayton estimates that the draft rule will be circulated for public comment in late spring or early summer. It is tentatively scheduled to go before the Natural Resources Board (NRB) in September or October of 2021. From there, it will be sent to the legislature if approved by the NRB. If passed by the legislature, it would be sent to the Governor to be signed into law. 

To view a copy of the draft rule, go to:

N restricted areas

Impact explained

At a meeting of the NR-151 TAC on Thursday, March 25, which WDNR team lead Chris Clayton described as “unplanned,” a further explanation of the economic impacts of the proposed rule was provided.

According to Clayton, WDNR’s draft economic analysis considers the costs for various changes in practices that may result from compliance with the proposed rule requirements over a 10-year implementation period, including:

• Compliance and implementation cost to small business

• Fiscal impact (cost to the state)

• Benefits of implementing the rule

The proposed performance standard for areas to be included in the ‘sensitive areas’ rule for runoff management aim to keep nitrate levels in private and municipal wells below the federal/state safe drinking water standard of 10 milligrams-per-liter (mg/L). 

The proposed standards is to allow less than 2.2 pounds of nitrate per acre per inch of groundwater recharge. Typical rates of groundwater recharge in Wisconsin range from four to eight inches per year on average. State Geologist Ken Bradbury pointed out, though, that depending on the field and the year, recharge rates can vary significantly, and could be greater in wet years and less in dry years.

In addition, a producer’s nutrient management plan must account for all sources of nitrogen, including nitrogen applied to fields through irrigation water.

The rule also sets out prohibitions for application of commercial nitrogen fertilizer. Fall restrictions currently apply to Nitrogen Restricted Soils, which account for 72 percent of the entire targeted area. The rule will allow for some exceptions, but no new cost is estimated to come from these exceptions, which are as follows:

• Fall seeded crops – many producers take on this cost to increase soil health and grow a forage crop that can be harvested for feed in the spring

• Fall cover crops in potato rotations to reduce applications of soil fumigants to future potato crops – potato growers take on this cost to gain the benefits of reduced soil fumigants

• Established perennial crops – beef producers and grazers take on this cost to maintain the quality of pasture feed

Liquid Manure restricted areas

Liquid manure

The rule also contains prohibitions on application of liquid manure, which applies to a subset of 45 percent of the targeted area. The rule will apply in areas with porous and rocky soils, within 1,000 feet of a community well, and in fields within community wellhead protection areas where testing has shown nitrate levels at 5 mg/L or greater.

The total liquid manure protection area is less than three million acres. Corn acreage is considered for this analysis because it is common in dairy crop rotations, and receives liquid manure applications. These acres account for one of the three million acres. Half of the corn on these acres is grown for ethanol and food additives, and is less likely to receive liquid manure. This means a total of 540,000 acres will be affected by the prohibitions.

In WDNR’s economic impact analysis, the assumption is that not all producers will be able to make use of the exceptions (listed below) to manage all manure at their farm within the existing limits of their nutrient management plan.

For this reason, some producers may need to install additional manure storage to comply with the proposed rule. WDNR’s analysis assumes the following:

• About 2,500 farms are affected in the liquid manure prohibition area

• Exceptions (listed below) offer low-cost options for managing manure

• Manure storage is the least-cost option to meet the prohibition at 200 farms (eight percent of the targeted area)

• Estimated cost to build a concrete lined manure storage structure is $500 per animal unit for the average sized dairy farm in Wisconsin, with the farmer paying $30,000 of the total cost, and cost share paying $70,000

• The total cost to producers over the 10-year implementation period would be $6 million

Liquid manure exceptions

 The three exceptions available to producers in managing liquid manure are as follows:

• Application for the establishment of fall seeded crops. It is assumed that most producers will plant cover crops to achieve compliance on corn acreage. Accounting for farms needing to install manure storage, this means the total affected area is 496,800 acres. The calculation assumes cereal rye cover crops will be planted at a cost of $25 per acre with 70 percent cost share. The total estimated cost to producers over the 10-year implementation period is estimated at $3.726 million

• Application to established crops (such as alfalfa). As these crops are established as part of a farm’s cropping system, it is estimated that there are no additional costs to the producer.

• Allowing one fall application at a rate reduced to 25 percent or less of rates allowed on a field under the farm’s nutrient management plan or NRCS 590. WDNR assumes in their calculation of economic impacts that this option will be preferred, and will be used in combination with the two previous exceptions to manage manure.

Costs summary

The total cost of implementation and compliance for producers over the 10-year implementation period is estimated to be $9,726,00 or $972,600 per year.

The fiscal impact of this rule on state grant programs for cost share-eligible practices is estimated to be $22,694,000 over the 10-year implementation period, or $2,269,400 per year.

Benefits summary

WDNR estimates that abatement of nitrate pollution in groundwater will provide benefits of cost avoidance related to health care, drinking water treatment, and well replacement. Those estimated benefits are as follows:

• Medical cost attributed to nitrate contamination of drinking water in Wisconsin is estimated to be between $23 million and $80 million per year

• The average cost to replace a private well is about $12,000, and the cost to replace a municipal well is between $150,000 and $250,00

• The cost of replacing 10 percent of private wells in Wisconsin that have nitrate levels above the public health standard of 10 mg/L is more than $440 million.

Targeted areas

To see a visual depiction of the areas proposed for inclusion in the proposed standards in southwest Wisconsin, see the map accompanying this story.

Crawford and Vernon counties:there are no targeted areas that are not already covered under the NRCS 590 standard for nutrient management

Grant County:the areas covered are T8N R2W: All Sections, and T5N R5W: All Sections

Iowa County:in Iowa County, the following areas are proposed for inclusion:

*T8N R1E: All Sections

*T8N R2E: Sections 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, & 18

*T8N R3E: Sections 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, & 18

*T8N R4E: Sections 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 34, 35, & 36

*T8N R5E: All Sections

T7N R1E: All Sections

T6N R1E: Sections 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, & 36

T6N R2E: Sections 19, 20, 21, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, & 33

T6N R5E: All Sections

T5N R1E: All Sections

T5N R3E: Sections 15, 16, 21, 22, 23, 26, 27, 28, & 29

T5N R4E: Sections 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, & 36

T5N R5E: Sections 2, 11, 34, & 35

*T4N R1E: Sections 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 16, 17, & 18

*T4N R3E: All Sections

*T4N R4E: All Sections

*T4N R5E: All Sections

Lafayette County:in Lafayette County the following areas are proposed for inclusion:

T3N R1E: All Sections

T3N R4E: All Sections

T3N R5E: All Sections

T2N R1E: Sections 5 & 8

T2N R3E: All Sections

T2N R4E: Sections 1, 2, 3, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, & 36

T2N R5E: All Sections

T1N R2E: Sections 12, 13, & 14

T1N R3E: All Sections

T1N R4E: All Sections

T1N R5E: All Sections

Richland County:in Richland County the following areas are proposed for inclusion:

T12N R1W: All Sections

T11N R2W: All Sections

T11N R2E: Sections 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, & 36

T9N R2E: All Sections