A Dane County judge has ruled the Department of Natural Resources can't retract a previous decision and must continue imposing environmental protections on a large dairy farm expansion.
Dane County Circuit Judge John W. Markson ruled last week that Wisconsin can set limits on large dairy feedlots to protect water sources from pollution, overturning a decision of department secretary Cathy Stepp.
The court decision is the latest development in a dispute over Kinnard Farms' plans to expand its dairy operations by thousands of cows in Kewaunee County.
Groundwater contamination in that area has created tension between farmers and non-farmers. Sharp cattle population growth in the county has led to polluted wells, which environmentalists and others blame on excessive manure spreading. Farming interests have suggested that other causes are to blame in some cases.
Markson ruled that the department must place a cap on the number of cattle the farm could keep, and require it to install groundwater monitoring equipment.
The farm owners say they might appeal the ruling.
The case dates back to March 2012, when Kinnard asked for the department's permission to expand its herd. A state administrative law judge said that the farm could expand, but that the department must require a maximum limit on cows and monitoring.
Kinnard appealed the decision, and Stepp denied their request in November 2014.
Eight months later, the department asked the state Justice Department whether the agency had the authority to dictate such farm limits because of a 2011 law that says Wisconsin agencies can't impose requirements on parties unless the power is spelled out in law.
The Justice Department said one day later that the department didn't have such authority, and in September 2015, the department announced it was granting Kinnard a permit.
An attorney for Clean Wisconsin, Elizabeth Wheeler, said that the Justice Department's attempts to limit the Department of Natural Resources' power aren't based on law.
Markson ruled that the 2011 law must be interpreted along with others that give the department the power to control wastewater.
The department said it was reviewing the decision and consulting with the Justice Department.