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Board grills DNR officials about staffing & enforcement

Citing concerns about staffing and lagging enforcement at the Department of Natural Resources, members of a citizens board grilled officials on Wednesday in the wake of a critical audit that detailed shortcomings in the agency's water regulation programs.

The state's Legislative Audit Bureau found backlogs in the DNR's wastewater program for factories, municipalities and large farms. It also found that the agency issued only a small percentage of violation notices for the cases reviewed.

The audit — released on June 10 — comes after news reports of a drop-off in DNR enforcement activity in recent years, as well as criticism by environmental and conservation groups that the DNR has de-emphasized environmental oversight since 2011 when Republican Gov. Scott Walker took office.

Natural Resources Board chairman Terry Hilgenberg, a real estate executive of Shawano, directed agency officials to discuss the audit at the board's monthly meeting. The meeting in Richland Center also included a discussion of this spring's erosion of bluffs on Lake Michigan.

The audit cited numerous issues, including staff turnover, especially involving oversight of the state's largest farms. Large-scale farms — known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs — have come under scrutiny because of the vast quantities of manure produced by them and the potential for the waste to pollute waterways.

The audit found regional differences in enforcement results and weaknesses of electronic record keeping. It called for the DNR to improve its administration and "better align DNR's enforcement practices with its policies."

DNR officials said the audit was useful, but defended the agency's efforts to enforce water pollution laws. Officials also acknowledged staffing issues have slowed work on numerous fronts.

Under sometimes sharp questioning, officials said the backlog at the end of 2015 for municipal and industrial permits was roughly in line with the national average for other states.

As for enforcement, state auditors noted the DNR had issued notices of environmental violations in only 33 of 558 instances, or 5.9% of the time, from 2005 to 2014 using its own criteria in such cases. The notices, also known as enforcement letters, are the lowest rung on the agency's enforcement ladder and began during the administration of former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle.

Patrick Stevens, DNR administrator of environmental management, said the figures obscure a long-standing approach — going back several administrations — of trying to ensure companies and individuals first achieve compliance. The most flagrant cases end up being referred to the Department of Justice for prosecution, he said.

The report "suggests we are not doing anything," which is not the case, said Stevens.

The DNR's lack of staffing — and the reasons for it — generated many of the questions from board members.

Earlier this year, the agency said employment had dropped 15% since 1995. The DNR's head count stood at 2,641, including vacancies. There were then 365 vacant positions and 90 were in the process of being filled.

Officials pointed to high levels of retirements and staff turnover since 2011, and financial constraints on the agency that have limited hiring in many cases. Training new employees can take two years, board members were told.

"If we have been unable to acquire the adequate number of employees over the last six years, what are you going to change, so that we have some level of confidence that there are going to be enough people in that department ASAP?" asked board member and dairy farmer William Bruins of Waupun.

Board member Preston Cole of Milwaukee, an administrator in the City of Milwaukee's Department of Public Works, said he was "perplexed" why the agency didn't better plan for anticipated retirements.

Another board member, dentist and cranberry company operator Frederick Prehn of Wausau, questioned why the DNR has not sought fee increases for CAFOs that pay $395 for a permit even though the cost of developing the farm can reach tens of millions of dollars.

"That's not fair," Prehn said.

Board members pressed officials on whether they will seek higher fees from CAFOs and more funding from the governor and the Legislature.

DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp said efforts to reorganize the agency and a top-to-bottom analysis of work priorities must be finished to convince lawmakers the agency needs more money. Officials hope to complete a major revamping of the agency later this year.

Walker has not said whether he supports additional funding for the DNR. Wisconsin Public Radio reported on Tuesday that the governor said in Dunn County, in western Wisconsin, that his office is mulling changes at the DNR, ranging from additional staffing to turning some duties over to other agencies.

Spokesman Tom Evenson said in an email on Tuesday, "The governor is considering many policy items as we work to build the next state budget. Any specifics related to the DNR will be presented with the governor's budget proposal."

The questions put to DNR officials were among the most pointed in recent years. But board member Julie Anderson of Sturtevant, who works for Racine County, applauded the agency for trying to bring changes at a time of limited resources while being pressured by dueling constituencies.

"What this team has been able to accomplish so far, and what they continue to strive for, is nothing short of incredible," Anderson said.

On the topic of Lake Michigan bluff erosion, board members were told the problem has been worst in Racine County, particularly in Mount Pleasant where one home has been removed and a handful of other homes are precariously close to falling into the lake.

The lake has experienced a 4-foot jump since its low point of 2013, but is still about 2 feet below the historic high, board members were told.

If water levels on Lake Michigan continue to rise, "we will continue to see failures on taller bluffs in other parts of the state," said Michael Thompson, a program manager for the agency.

News & Events DEC 1st

December Monthly Meeting at The Raw Deal

Come to the Raw Deal at 603 S Broadway Street in Menomonie for a more casual monthly meeting December 12th from 6-8 pm. Connect with other members, bring a friend, and talk about all we did in 2017 and all we will do in 2018. Look forward to seeing you there!

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