If you haven’t checked your faucets lately, you might want to take a look.
State Rep. Jimmy Anderson (D-Fitchburg) made an eye-opening -- and stomach-turning -- claim
amid work by the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee on the state budget.
Specifically, Anderson focused on large-scale farms known as CAFOs, or Concentrated Animal
Feeding Operations. Here is what he tweeted May 29, 2019:
"Republicans on JFC did nothing to address CAFO oversight as literal manure is coming out of
people’s faucets. We can't let Wisconsin communities suffer like Flint, Michigan."
Is it true that GOP members of the budget-writing committee sidestepped adding any
regulations to CAFOs? And what about his claim that there’s "literal manure" coming out of
We decided to dive into the murky waters to find out.
With large farms come a lot of animals (in Wisconsin, that typically means cows). And with a lot
of animals, comes a lot of waste.
To manage that waste, especially as it relates to water quality, provisions of the federal Clean
Water Act come into play. In Wisconsin, those laws are overseen by the state Department of
The provisions specifically apply to how manure is stored as waste or applied to fields as
fertilizer on farms with more than 1,000 "animal units." These are the CAFOs.
In all, there were 304 permitted CAFOS in Wisconsin as of Jan. 1, 2019, according to the DNR.
The department anticipates there will be 318 by the end of the year and 332 at the end of 2020.
As part of his 2019-21 state budget, Gov.Tony Evers -- a Democrat -- proposed $83.5 million in
bonding to address water contamination, including funds to replace lead service lines at homes,
according to a March 4, 2019 article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
It was part of a push Evers had billed as the "Year of Clean Drinking Water."
According to a March 6, 2019 WisPolitics article, Evers’ plan calls for adding five staff positions
to oversee the large-scale operations and would increase from $345 to $660 the annual
discharge permit fee paid by CAFO owners.
Additionally, Evers proposed creating a new permit issuance fee of $3,270 for a CAFO. That fee
would be paid every five years.
On May 28, 2019, Republicans on the budget-writing committee voted to cut about $43 million
from Evers’ proposals aimed at reducing pollution in state lakes, streams and drinking water.
The vote on Evers’ proposal to increase fees for CAFO operations was postponed, according to
an article in the Wisconsin State Journal.
That’s what prompted Anderson -- and other Democrats -- to tweet their criticism of inaction,
tossing in the bit about manure-contaminated water coming from taps.
Let’s start with the first part: Did Republicans "do nothing" to address CAFO oversight?
Well, GOP committee members did push off a vote on it. That said, they did not vote down the
increased CAFO fees.
State Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, a co-chair of the committee, defended cutting the funding
increase proposed by Evers, suggesting water quality today is better than it has been in the past
decades. (Neither Nygren, nor his co-chair, state Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, responded
to requests from PolitiFact Wisconsin for comment.)
According to the State Journal article, Nygren said he wants to explore moving the regulation of
CAFOs from the DNR to the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
That was originally proposed by former Gov. Scott Walker and is backed by industry officials,
but the idea faces its own hurdles.
As the Legislative Fiscal Bureau noted, the DNR is the only state agency authorized by the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency to regulate aspects of the Clean Water Act.
So, on the first part of the claim, Anderson has a point, but it comes with an asterisk, since
action on the CAFO changes were postponed, not rejected.
About that ‘literal manure’ from taps
When we contacted Anderson’s office to ask what he meant by "literal manure" flowing from
peoples’ faucets, spokesman Logan Vidal sent a series of news articles and a guide by the DNR
that helps consumers determine if their wells have been contaminated by manure.
Vidal also provided documents by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau on the backlog of CAFO permits
and statistics on manure spills over the years.
Before we continue, let’s pause for a moment to note we recognize the role of rhetoric and
hyperbole in politics. In this case, though, Anderson did not help himself by tacking "literal" onto
his claim. His phrasing conjures an image of animal waste coming directly from a water faucet --
with no filter or treatment.
That’s not how it works.
In contamination cases, there is a mix of fecal matter and water that can come out of the faucet,
exposing a homeowner to fecal bacteria in their water.
Some examples (from Vidal and our own research):
Kewaunee County, in particular, has raised concerns over water quality in the state after it was
confirmed in 2017 that fecal microbes were discovered in 60% of its sampled wells. Kewaunee
is a county with a high concentration of CAFO operations.
Door County had its own episodes of its own tainted water in 2014 that left seven people sick.
The contamination was also traced back to the spreading of manure.
Meanwhile, a May 2019 report from the fiscal bureau noted there had been 726 spills since
2007, tallying more than 10 million gallons of manure. The report notes manure spills have the
potential to impact water quality and public health.
The report also notes staff turnover and an increasing backlog of CAFO permits have hindered
oversight and state water quality and says of the DNR: "By increasing staffing for water impacts
evaluation, spills mitigation, and permit noncompliance, the Department argues it would be able
to provide adequate oversight of CAFOs."
So, there is clear concern about manure from CAFOs affecting drinking water, but Anderson
goes over the top in claiming it is "literal manure."
Anderson claimed Republicans on the budget-writing committee "did nothing" to address
oversight of large-scale farms, "as literal manure is coming out of people’s faucets."
There is truth on both parts of the claim -- but with caveats.
The committee delayed action on measures on fee changes directly tied to CAFOs, it did not
reject them. And there are clear concerns about the impact of manure on drinking water,
including cases where fecal microbes has been detected in water. But Anderson’s "literal" claim
pushes the picture too far.
We rate Anderson’s claim Half True.
Editor's Note: After this claim was rated and published, Republicans on the Legislature's finance committee voted June 11, 2019, to reject Evers' proposed fee increases for large farms. The committee did agree to direct all proceeds from existing fees to the DNR, rather than allowing $250 to continue going to the general fund. Rating are determined based on the information available to the speaker at the time a claim was made. Thus, the committee action does not change this rating.