Policy progress: We made impact in ’17
Friday, December 1, 2017
Posted by: John Holevoet, director of government affairs
The end of the year is naturally a time to take stock. So, I decided to pick our top three policy accomplishments. I struggled, but that is a good problem to have.
The first item on my list is the passage of a bill to protect farmers’ existing investments in high-capacity wells (HCWs). This was the culmination of years of work by DBA and our allies in the agricultural community.
The bill, which Gov. Scott Walker signed on June 1, allows for the repair, replacement, reconstruction and transfer of previously approved HCWs without a redundant environmental review. The bill also calls for a study of water use in the most sensitive parts of the Central Sands region to make sure we protect our shared water resources.
The bill does not address the permitting of new HCWs. That process has been much improved thanks to an attorney general’s opinion that clarified the authority of the state Department of Natural Resources. Still, this issue may eventually require legislative action. A legal battle between environmental groups and DNR over a handful of new well permits is ongoing.
The next major accomplishment occurred because of litigation. DBA was pleased to announce a very favorable settlement of its lawsuit against the DNR. At the center of this case was DNR’s skirting of the rulemaking process as it was reformed by Act 21. Instead of going through the proper rulemaking channels, DNR would often issue guidance documents or other non-rules, which would then be enforced against farms as legally binding.
One of the most frustrating recent examples of this was the department’s treatment of calf-hutch areas and vegetated treatment areas (VTAs). Without any changes in the law or formal rulemaking, DNR radically altered how it regulated these areas.
Under the settlement, DNR withdrew its unlawful “guidance” on VTAs and pulled back from the way it had been reviewing calf hutch lots. DNR will still be able to act to protect water quality, but this will occur because of a case-specific determination that a farm is having an issue, not blanket regulation that make farms abandon facilities that are working just fine. The settlement also contained provisions to help prevent this kind of regulatory overreach in the future.
Deciding what to end this list with was the toughest decision. We have worked on a lot of other issues, from knocking back an attempt to remove America’s Dairyland from our license plates to helping to eliminate budget language that could have been used to justify activist local governments’ attempts to impose illegal regulations on larger farms. Ultimately, I decided to highlight an item that is still in the works: reimagining the CAFO permitting program and moving it from DNR to the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
This move is far from a done deal. It is a complicated process, which will require future legislation, federal approval and a lot of work on our part. Still, our victory this year was keeping the concept top of mind for policymakers, especially Gov. Walker, who reiterated his commitment to the idea in October.
This is something that DBA has been advocating for some time. It will promote efficiency for both state government and farms. It will also promote better environmental outcomes by allowing the focus to shift from permitting to improved oversight.
This year has been one of the most impactful in DBA’s history. Many people are responsible for this, including you. Your personal outreach on these and other important issues has been essential. We should feel good about our accomplishments, but it should inspire us to work even harder in the coming year.