CAFO runoff (copy)

A Kewaunee County large animal feedlot was fined $50,000 for allowing manure into streams and drinking water. Above, a culvert with run-off from a CAFO production area in the town of Lincoln.

It has become a common joke that when Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce takes sides on a public issue these days, the other side is the one you should support.

It's difficult to find any state organization that more consistently opposes the public interest than this free-spending lobbying behemoth that has bought virtually everything from the Wisconsin Legislature to the state Supreme Court.

The coalition of the state's biggest corporations and business interests isn't satisfied with weakening unions and eviscerating even the most common-sense regulations. Remarkably, it's now knee-deep into fighting efforts to protect clean water in the state.

Money and profits always come first. Public health can take a back seat.

We're seeing it in spades in recent weeks as WMC flexes its muscle to thwart any attempt to regulate the siting of those huge Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) that are causing havoc in many Wisconsin communities. Apparently the size of these farming conglomerates attracts WMC. You don't see these guys at the forefront when it comes to protecting and nurturing our family farmers, who could certainly use a little nurturing these days.

WMC was knee-deep in the controversy that ended with the Republican-controlled state Senate refusing to confirm ag secretary Brad Pfaff last month. Pfaff was pushing a revision of the livestock siting rules that would have given local governments more say over how close animal and manure facilities could be located to adjacent properties.

The big business lobby quickly joined the Dairy Business Association — which represents the big farm operators — the always conservative Farm Bureau and others in opposing the new rules. They contended that the revised rules would further harm the already beleaguered farming industry, even though the organization that actually represents small farmers, the Wisconsin Farmers Union, was in favor of it.

Republicans in the Senate then used that as an excuse to vote against Pfaff's confirmation, ignoring that the secretary, in an attempt to appease the GOP, had agreed to drop the revision the week before.

Now WMC is working to thwart the Department of Natural Resources in its efforts to address the alarming increase of nitrates in the state's drinking water.

This has become a big deal in several parts of Wisconsin where the top soil is thin or porous bedrock allows nitrates generated by manure to seep into the water table. This has been particularly bad in southwestern Wisconsin, and in Kewaunee County in the northeast, where a third of tested wells have been found to be unsafe.

When the DNR opened discussions to determine if limits should be set to distance manure from water wells, WMC's vice president of government relations was Johnny-on-the-spot to object.

Despite evidence that heavy manure spreading from large CAFO operations has contaminated many neighborhood wells, Scott Manley claimed that there isn't enough data to show where the nitrates are coming from. He implied that the DNR just wants to regulate CAFOs and let the small operators go.

Despite WMC and the Dairy Business Association's opposition, the DNR's policy board earlier this week voted to at least study the problem, a first step that two to three years from now could result in better regulations.

But don't hold your breath. The policy board is still controlled by former Gov. Scott Walker appointees, and they have a habit of listening closely to WMC.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.  

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