Wisconsin Supreme Court to decide public water disputes

MADISON — The Wisconsin Supreme Court will take up a series of legal disputes that could have far-reaching implications for state regulators' power to protect public waters from pollution and overuse.

A state appeals court panel asked the high court Wednesday to settle 10 lawsuits over natural resources, which have been consolidated into two cases, the Wisconsin State Journal reported. The high court's rulings will determine the balance of power between lawmakers and state regulators.

The cases stem from conservationists wanting to preserve the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources' authority to protect public water rights and enforce clean water standards. But business groups are pushing to keep power in the hands of elected politicians who can be held accountable if the state goes too far and harms profits.

"Both of these cases require the court to decide whether water will be protected for public benefit, or instead overused or polluted for the private gain for a handful of corporate farms," said attorney Evan Feinauer of Clean Wisconsin, a Madison environmental nonprofit that's a plaintiff in the lawsuits.

One of the cases that the Supreme Court will review challenges the DNR's decision to allow a dairy farm to expand a feedlot in Kewaunee County, an area with manure-contaminated drinking water. Another group of lawsuits objects to the agency approving permits for farms to make large-scale withdrawals of groundwater. The well permits were in areas where the department had determined new wells would put drinking water at risk and exacerbate a problem of lakes and streams drying up.

Parts of the state have seen drinking water become contaminated by farm runoff, or lakes and streams dry up from nearby farmers pumping from groundwater. Agricultural runoff of manure and fertilizer into public waters also can lead to unnatural growths of weeds and bacteria that can close beaches and harm fish.

The Department of Natural Resources declined to comment.