Ruling protects Wisconsin recreation, rural residents
Wisconsin’s lakes, rivers, streams and other water resources belong to everyone and are held in public trust for the people of the state.
A decade ago, Wisconsin’s legislature attempted to pull the teeth of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) as a watchdog organization looking out for water and environmental resources. When passed in 2011, the law imposing regulatory limits on the DNR was a betrayal of the public trust doctrine. The state legislature turned its back on environmental concerns in favor of commerce as the state worked to claw its way out of a severe recession. It made the devil’s barter of putting short-term economic gains ahead of long term environmental consequences.
Now, a decade later, as the state’s coffers are overflowing, the primary concern isn’t so much losing jobs as having the workers to fill the jobs that are available.
The decade’s difference in the political environment is reflected in the July 8 Wisconsin Supreme Court rulings rolling back those attempts at muzzling the DNR and affirming its ability to serve as the primary watchdog when it comes to water and environmental protection in the state.
The first ruling determined that the DNR has explicit authority to consider the environmental impacts of high capacity wells on nearby waterways. High capacity wells can withdraw more than 100,000 gallons of water a day from the ground for irrigation, agriculture or manufacturing purposes. The concerns of opponents to these wells is the impact they can have on surrounding water levels impacting levels in streams, rivers and lakes.
The other ruling came in a case over the DNR’s ability to limit the number of cows at a dairy farm and require groundwater monitoring because of its responsibility to limit the release of manure into waterways.
While abundant, Wisconsin’s water resources are not limitless. Individuals and companies profiting from this inherently public resource must be held to account for their actions when they work against the public good.
Profits must not be allowed to take precedence over public waterways, but rather should be a balance with responsible use of water resources for all residents and property owners.
Wisconsin’s Public Trust Doctrine requires the state of Wisconsin to intervene to protect public rights in the commercial and recreational use of navigable waters. In ruling in favor of the DNR’s authority to do its job, the court landed a blow for rural communities and rural residents throughout the state.
The court action also helps prevent a hodgepodge of local enforcement and regulation as residents and property owners seek their own protections in the absence of the state government actually doing its job.
Wisconsin’s water resources belong to everyone, not just to big business and mega-agriculture. The court rulings bring the power back to the people.