The Wisconsin Supreme Court on July 8 issued decisions in two environmental cases that had pitted the state legislature against the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in a disagreement over which government entity has the authority to regulate water pollution and irrigation practices. In both cases, the court held 4-2 that the DNR is authorized to restrict permits in order to protect the state’s water resources.
The pair of cases, both initiated by Clean Wisconsin Inc. and Pleasant Lake Management District, centered on Wisconsin Act 21—a 2011 law that limits state agency authority by prohibiting state agencies from taking actions not specifically authorized by the state legislature.
The first case concerned an administrative law judge’s (ALJ) order that the DNR limit the size of a dairy herd causing nearby groundwater contamination. The DNR under then-Governor Scott Walker (R) did not enforce the ALJ’s directive, arguing that Act 21 prohibited the agency from carrying out the order.
A Dane County Circuit Court judge in 2016 affirmed the DNR’s authority to limit the size of the dairy herd to address water pollution. The DNR appealed the decision to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The current DNR under Governor Tony Evers (D) changed its position and had since claimed regulatory authority in the case.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the circuit court’s decision. Writing for the majority, Justice Jill Karofsky stated, “we conclude that an agency may rely upon a grant of authority that is explicit but broad when undertaking agency action, and such an explicit but broad grant of authority complies with [Act 21].”
In the second case, challengers sued the DNR seeking stricter enforcement of regulations regarding large-scale water withdrawals for irrigation. Challengers claimed that the agency failed to consider the cumulative negative impact on water levels in nearby lakes and streams when it issued permits for nine high-capacity wells. As in the previous case, the DNR argued that Act 21 prevented the agency from considering the cumulative impact of the new wells.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court again affirmed the circuit court’s decision in the case, holding that the DNR erroneously claimed that it lacked regulatory authority. Writing for the majority, Justice Rebecca Dallet stated, “The DNR’s authority to consider the environmental effects of proposed high capacity wells, while broad, is nevertheless explicitly permitted by statute.”
Chief Justice Annette Ziegler joined Justices Ann Walsh Bradley, Rebecca Dallet and Jill Karofsky in both majority opinions. Justice Brian Hagedorn did not participate in the case.
Justices Rebecca Bradley and Patience Roggensack dissented, arguing in part: “Elevating its environmental policy preferences over the legislature’s prerogative to reclaim its constitutional authority, the majority distorts the plain language of [Act 21] to achieve its own ends.”