February 10, 2016

Supreme Court says state controls water rules

The state Supreme Court says a town board in Rock County was wrong to make a large dairy farm follow water quality standards that were stricter than what Wisconsin law allows. The 5-2 decision centers on a case out of the Town of Magnolia, which the court ruled did not have the authority to impose stringent water standards on a 2,900 cow dairy operation owned by Larson Acres.

In the majority opinion, Justice Michael Gableman wrote the state’s livestock siting law from 2004 achieved a balance between protecting natural resources and fostering a strong farm economy. And he says Magnolia “stepped over” that balance by not following the guidelines set by the Legislature.

The board said the more stringent rules were needed because manure from the farm’s cows resulted in relatively high nitrate levels. When the town approved an expansion permit, the farm was required to test water quality on its land each month and to rotate crops a certain way to reduce the buildup of nitrates.

Larson Acres challenged the conditions in court, arguing pollution control standards can only be set by the state. A Rock County circuit judge sided with the town of Magnolia, but an appeals court later ruled in favor of farm owners.

Similar court cases have been filed in a half-dozen other states, but the Wisconsin case was the first to reach a state Supreme Court.

In the dissent, Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson said the majority admitted that the town has other powers to regulate livestock facilities, and it’s “absurd” to assume that towns have no powers under the specific terms of the state livestock siting law. Justice Ann Walsh Bradley joined Abrahamson in siding with the town board.

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