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DNR may move staff to improve water quality policing (UPDATE)

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources secretary is pushing for a reorganization of the agency in response to deficiencies found in a legislative audit.

DNR officials said Wednesday at a Natural Resources Board meeting that short staffing and lax documentation underlie many of the issues outlined in the Legislative Audit Bureau’s report released in early June.

The department plans to use a “core work analysis” it’s been conducting to move positions and money to the areas that need them most, such as water quality management.

“This Legislature is very business-focused, so that was the goal of this core work analysis, to present a work product that’s based on business principles,” DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp told the board Wednesday at its meeting in Richland Center.

She said they can then make the “business case” to lawmakers and Gov. Scott Walker as to whether they need more bodies or just need approval to move positions around within the department.

Stepp and other DNR officials came to the meeting at the board’s request to answer questions about the audit, which found the agency hasn’t been following its own policies for regulating pollution from large livestock farms and wastewater treatment plants.

The audit noted the DNR failed to send violation notices to wastewater treatment plants in 94 percent of the nearly 560 instances its policies say it should have over the past decade.

Environmental Management Administrator Pat Stevens said Wednesday those numbers incorrectly suggest the department isn’t doing anything. He said the policies calling for the notices of violation in the instances the audit lists are “outdated” and should be reevaluated. Instead, he said, the DNR uses a policy that includes two levels of contact before a violation notice would be issued.

“The perception right now is the department isn’t doing anything, that the skies are black,” said Natural Resources Board member Frederick Prehn. “That’s not the case.”

The audit also found permits are extended without reviews due to a backlog and that staff members don’t have time to thoroughly monitor concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. It also found that inspections of water treatment facilities and CAFOs often fell below the frequency goal, although CAFO inspections had increased from 2005 to 2014.

Office of Business Support and Science Director Mark Aquino said the department has already reallocated some positions into the CAFO program, is looking at streamlining efforts and is working to reduce turnover.

He said Stepp has made it clear that water quality is part of the department’s core work, but whether more resources will shift into the division from other areas will depend on input from the public and policy makers.

“We’re beyond important and not important,” Aquino said. “It’s sort of important and more important.”

DNR spokesman Jim Dick said the analysis and recommendations should be wrapped up by the end of August. Stepp said the department will brief the Natural Resources Board once the analysis is completed.

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