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Water-quality advocates say the state Department of Natural Resources’ regulation of large farms, known as concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs, is too lax.

DNR acknowledges low staffing levels have strained enforcement efforts, and described the program:

Staffing: To cover 258 CAFOs, DNR has 11 inspector positions, eight of which are filled, according to agency water resources specialist Andrew Craig. That works out to an average of 32 facilities per inspector. “That is a lot,” said runoff section chief Mary Anne Lowndes. “Everybody recognizes these are high-priority positions, but it always takes time and then you have to train them.” She added: “It’s been hard to maintain the program with the number of vacancies.”

Inspections: The minimum is once every five years for each permit approval. In reality, said CAFO official Casey Jones, she gets out to her northeastern Wisconsin sites “at least once a year.” But staff turnover has hindered enforcement efforts in the region, she said. In addition to the required periodic inspections, other inspections occurred in response to complaints. Inspections are announced; DNR staffers, unlike wardens, may not access properties without permission.

Complaints: Complaints drive enforcement of manure spreading, but the agency has begun doing manure hauling audits. Citizen photos and testimony are not considered sufficient evidence. In northeastern Wisconsin, some citizens have begun taking their own water samples and asking the DNR to confirm them; in at least one case the agency’s sample did not get to the lab in time to be valid.

Mapping: Farmers buy land or contract with landowners to ensure they have enough land for all the manure. Verbal agreements are acceptable. The agency spot checks the agreements “as time allows,” Jones said and does “limited” review of nutrient management plans.

The agency does not map the parcels described in nutrient management plans with a comprehensive geographic information system, or GIS. In a 2012 special project, a DNR staffer mapped the nutrient management plans in Kewaunee and found some parcels that were double-approved for spreading of manure and other kinds of waste, like industrial or municipal sludge, Jones said. Double approvals are legal, but it is up to farmers to make sure they are not double-spreading.

Recordkeeping: The agency keeps a spreadsheet of enforcement actions, like notices of noncompliance or violation or enforcement conferences. It does not compile its inspection and enforcement efforts overall. Nor does it log complaints in one place. Jones said she had recently been assigned to compile such a report. “We do capture it in a case file, and we’re also trying to capture it on a statewide basis,” Lowndes said.

The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism ( collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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Kate Golden, multimedia director and reporter, specializes in environmental stories and data visualizations.