Integrated Water Resource Protection: RIP in Wisconsin? | wisconsinacademy.org
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Integrated Water Resource Protection: RIP in Wisconsin?

Tue, 08/11/2015 - 9:37am -- Todd Ambs

It was a noble effort, the Water Division in the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR). But like many noble conservation efforts in this state, this too has been recently eliminated.

We are told that the changes are needed for efficiency and better integration. The DNR Secretary says that these actions are needed because of the actions of the Wisconsin Legislature. We are told that the current DNR is powerless to change this fact. So the department streamlines, pares back, and works to improve customer service and maintain accountability.

Lost in all of the organizational charts and memos is the most basic of reasons behind the changes. What are they trying to achieve? What is the mission of the DNR related to our water resources? Are they first and foremost functioning to protect our natural resources or are they now restructuring to better serve the businesses and other “customers” who wish to receive permits that could impair and degrade our water-related natural resources?

I recently took a canoe camping trip on the Namekagon, one of Wisconsin's two National Wild & Scenic Rivers. Indeed, water is integral to Wisconsin’s culture. The reorganization at the DNR puts these waters at risk.

For nearly twenty years, the DNR in Wisconsin has worked to manage the water-related natural resources in this state using a structure based on the premise that all water is connected in an ecosystem—especially in a water-rich state like Wisconsin. I was honored to serve as the DNR’s Water Division Administrator for eight of those twenty years, and I have a few observations regarding the recent decision to abandon this approach.

The new structure will not be more efficient. Activities that have the potential to impact our water resources will now often need permits from at least two divisions in the agency, rather than one. Further, when it comes to considering the impact on fish, the fisheries staff will not even be connected to either of the divisions responsible for issuing the permits that could affect these fisheries.

The new structure will not be more integrated. Bureaucracies are unwieldy beasts in the best of times, and they respond best when lines of reporting are clear and direct. The new structure creates three divisions with some water-related functions when there used to be one. As such, it will be harder to coordinate activities. Simple human nature makes this reality a given. What is more likely under this structure is that fisheries will revert to the old school of single-species game fish management. Programs that are delegated responsibilities under federal laws like the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act will respond mostly to US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other programs driven largely by state law will function in a narrow, silo-ed manner, with little interaction between divisions.

For many years, the mission of the Water Division was four-fold:

Objectives and strategies were developed around these goals. Progress was measured against these specific priorities. We weren’t always successful and it wasn’t always as integrated and efficient as we wanted it to be, but we knew what we were trying to achieve.

So when I see that the name of one of the new Divisions is called Business Support and External Services, I get concerned. It is noteworthy to me that the internal memo developed to announce these changes highlights nine alignment goals, yet the term natural resource is not used once in relation to any of these goals. Yes, the DNR should always be working to issue permits in an efficient and timely manner. They are called permits after all, not prohibitions. But if the driving force behind these permits is simply to issue them as fast as possible, then just move the whole operation to the Department of Regulations and Licensing and skip the pretense of natural resource protection. I am not suggesting this is the intent with the new structure. Rather, I am simply saying that the terminology being used to justify the changes seems to give short shrift to the goal of natural resource protections.

Finally, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has already pointed out, the real issue here may well be the sheer lack of experiences staff and sufficient funds to do the job. We have world-class water resources in this state. On the water ledger alone, we find 15,000 lakes, 84,000 miles of rivers and streams, 5.3 million acres of wetlands and 1,100 miles of Great Lakes shoreline. We have groundwater resources that are the envy of much of the world, let alone the nation (although they are not evenly distributed, and in some areas they are in short supply). We have water resources of which most of the world can only dream. These resources need world class protections. To do anything less is to toss aside the bounty that Mother Nature has given us.

The DNR has stated that the next several months will be a time for input and reaction to these “interim” changes. Let’s take them at their word and have a true discussion about what is best for our natural resources.

Perhaps we should start with funding. Our neighbors in Minnesota raised their sales tax through a state referendum. Voters overwhelmingly approved a tax that generates nearly $200 million a year for clean water, park maintenance, and wildlife conservation. Why not do something similar here? If users are supposed to fully fund activities they desire, such as the recent decision to fund state parks only through fees, then we should look to raise other fees as well. Some candidates should include:

  • Wastewater permits, the fees for which have not been raised since the 1990s.
  • High capacity well permits, which were last raised in 2004.
  • Permits for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). When the fees for CAFO’s were last adjusted we had a total of 40 of these large animal-raising operations. We now have nearly 300, with roughly the same number of staff to review and approve permits all while making sure that these farms are operating in accordance with those permits.

The number of CAFOs in Wisconsin has increased dramatically over the last 3 decades, while the staff employed to review CAFO permits has remained the same. CAFOs contribute to algal blooms and groundwater contamination in Wisconsin.

The stakes here are high, not just for our natural resources but for our economy as well. Tourism is the third largest industry in this state, much of it due to the fact that at this time of year people have beautiful, pristine lakes and rivers for fishing, boating, and, well, just plain admiring.

If we are going to kill the Water Division, let’s make sure that our water resources don’t die with it.

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Todd Ambs is the Director of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. For more than 35 years, Ambs has worked in the environmental policy field. From 2010 until becoming Director of Healing Our Waters in July, 2013, Ambs was President of the national conservation group River Network.

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