The Wisconsin Supreme Court Slows Down The “Quiet Revolution”

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About four years ago I wrote a blog post titled “The Quiet Revolution in Wisconsin Administrative Law.” My purpose then was to point out an “unprecedented makeover in longstanding principles of state-level administrative law” that “shift[ed] power away from agencies and toward The Wisconsin Capitol in Madison, Wis.courts, the legislature, and the governor.” Last week the Wisconsin Supreme Court finally took the field to address that trend, issuing two opinions in companion cases that effectively loosened one of the key new legislative constraints on agency authority. As a result, the pendulum has swung back toward increased agency discretion and clout. The opinions are also important because they continue a recent revival of the Wisconsin public trust doctrine, reversing a slide that I identified in a 2016 blog post.

The court granted review in the two cases  (both captioned Clean Wisconsin v. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (2021 WI 71 and 2021 WI 72)) to address one of the issues I focused on in the 2017 post: the scope of Wis. Stat. § 227.10(2m). That statute provides that no agency may implement any “standard,” “requirement,” or permit condition unless the condition has been “explicitly required or explicitly permitted’ by statute or by rule.  The resulting opinions, joined by an unusual mix of justices in a four-vote majority, limit the statute’s influence and slow down the “quiet revolution.”

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Chicago’s Lakefront: The Rise of the Public Trust Doctrine (and Much More)

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Urbs in Horto”— city in a garden—is the motto Chicago’s founders chose upon the city’s incorporation on March 4, 1837. At the time, this was more of a vision than a statement of fact, as the city had few public parks then, and preserving its existing open spaces seemed uncertain at best. Given the industrial waterfronts in many other large cities, it is a marvel that Chicagoans made that early vision a reality, at least along the water, by creating the city’s magnificent lakefront parks and protecting open space over nearly two centuries. How did it happen, and what are the lessons for urban development more generally? The definitive account is provided in Lakefront, a remarkable new book twenty years in the making, coauthored by Marquette Law School Dean (and Chicago native) Joseph D. Kearney and Columbia University’s Thomas W. Merrill.

Lakefront is, at its core, a story about Chicago and the development of its world-renowned lakefront. But Kearney and Merrill also make a significant contribution in untangling the American development of the public trust doctrine, which has been called “unquestionably one of the most important elements of U.S. natural resources law.”[1] The Supreme Court has recognized the doctrine’s ancient origin and its roots in Roman law.[2] Scholars have traced it to the Code of Justinian. Today the doctrine is generally thought to protect and preserve certain natural resources of a “special character,” through a perpetual trust intended to prevent the unimpeded exercise of private rights upon them. But clarifying the doctrine’s operational reach has proven difficult, and it has evolved into many different strains of varying strength primarily governed by state common law. However, all agree that Justice Stephen Field’s 1892 opinion for the U.S. Supreme Court in Illinois Central Railroad Co. v. Illinois was the moment at which the doctrine became a prominent feature of American law. Lakefront provides groundbreaking new details and a blow-by-blow account of how the case originated from the battles between public and private rights on the Chicago lakefront.

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Congratulations to Marquette’s Environmental Law Moot Court Team

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I intended to write this post in March, upon returning from Spring Break, but 2020 got in the way. Better late than never, as they say; and I would be remiss not to recognize the excellent work of our 2019-20 Environmental Law Moot Court team, consisting of Caleb Tomaszewski and Adam Vanderheyden. The team (pictured here along with coach Dennis Grzezinski) competed in the 2020 National Environmental Law Moot Court Photo of the 2020 environmental law moot court team with a coach.Competition hosted by Pace University in White Plains, New York. Caleb and Adam advanced out of the preliminary rounds to the quarterfinals, where they were narrowly defeated. The team received high praise from several judges, but Caleb reported that the most gratifying aspect was “hearing the judges say that we are ready to advocate in real life.” I appreciate the significant contributions of Dennis Grzezinski, Gabe Johnson-Karp, and Professor Alex Lemann, who coached the team with me. But most of all, bravo to Caleb and Adam on achieving the best placement in years for the Law School in the National Environmental Law Moot Court Competition.

AG Kaul, WDNR Reverse Slide of Wisconsin’s Public Trust Doctrine

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An important shift in Wisconsin water policy has taken place in recent weeks, one that will likely have quantitative effects on Wisconsin water quality. It relates to the relative influence of the public trust doctrine in the state. On several occasions, I have written in this space about the doctrine’s apparently declining influence in Wisconsin. The public trust doctrine is generally taken to mean that a state must act as “trustee” of certain natural resources, particularly the navigable waters of the state, and manage them for the trust beneficiaries—its people.

Operationalizing those general terms has been difficult and has proceeded in fits and starts. For present purposes I will focus on the 2011 Wisconsin Supreme Court decision in Lake Beulah Management District v. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, (WNDR) concluding that the public trust doctrine gave WDNR “the authority and a general duty to consider whether a proposed high capacity well may harm [other] waters of the state” via water level drawdown and other potential impacts. In Wisconsin, high capacity wells (HCW) are statutorily defined as wells with the capacity to pump over 100,000 gallons of water per day. The court further held that when considering HCW applications WDNR had the authority to “deny a permit application or include conditions in a well permit” to prevent the harm to other nearby waters.

Around the same time, a new statute arguably undercut that same authority. While the case was before the court the Legislature enacted 2011 Wisconsin Act 21, creating Wisconsin Statute § 227.10(2m). The statute provides that “[n]o agency may implement or enforce any standard, requirement, or threshold, including a term or condition of any license issued by the agency, unless that standard, requirement, or threshold is explicitly required or explicitly permitted by statute or by a rule . . . .” For several years, uncertainty persisted over the tension between the Supreme Court opinion and the statute because the WDNR’s public trust authority is not “explicitly” stated in the statutes or in WDNR’s administrative rules.

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Enforcing Environmental Laws During The Pandemic

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According to basic economic theory, regulated entities will comply with the environmental laws when the expected benefits of doing so (most The Environmental Protection Agency logoprominently, avoiding penalties) outweigh the expected costs of compliance. Theoretically, economists say, there is an optimum level of enforcement where expected sanctions equal expected harm, taking into account the probability that violations will be detected.

Yet the actual level of enforcement of the environmental laws is never optimal, even at the best of times. Enforcement agencies such as the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its state counterparts like the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) have imperfect information about ongoing violations. They are not omniscient. And even if they had perfect information, there are often many more potential enforcement targets than can be pursued with limited agency resources. Enforcement, of course, is part of a broad mix of agency responsibilities that also includes rulemaking, standard setting, monitoring, and many other activities. Finally, political leaders may appoint agency heads who drive the pursuit of more or less than the optimal enforcement level.

Enter the pandemic. It adds a new layer of complexity, to understate the matter, in that enforcement agencies must take several new and highly important factors into account, such as the safety of agency personnel and the economic damage some regulated entities are experiencing. Staff who might normally be inspecting permitted facilities or investigating reported violations may be sick, quarantined, or at the very least, working from home. These factors have led some agencies to relax enforcement activities, as discussed in more detail below. Even if they are presumed to be well-meaning, such policies may worsen the situation in communities already disadvantaged by pollution levels that seriously impact public health. In turn, this may expose those communities to additional risks during or following the pandemic. Continue reading “Enforcing Environmental Laws During The Pandemic”

Real-time Control of Stormwater Management Systems

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Earlier this week the Notre Dame Journal on Emerging Technologies published Overcoming Legal and Institutional Barriers to the Implementation of Innovative Environmental Technologies, a paper I co-authored with Dr. Walter McDonald of the Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering (CCEE) in Marquette’s College of Engineering; Stormwater flowing into a grateJoe Naughton, a 2020 Sea Grant Knauss Fellow at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and Hannah Hathaway, a member of the Law School’s Class of 2020. Another faculty colleague, Dr. Tony Parolari of the CCEE department, participated in the underlying research grant that resulted in the paper. This kind of work is part of our core mission: the Marquette University Water Law and Policy Initiative seeks, among other things, to employ an interdisciplinary approach, and to pursue opportunities for information exchange and collaboration within and outside Marquette University.

The following excerpt describes the work. The full article is freely available at the above link.

Communities in the United States face growing challenges to effective stormwater management as a result of aging infrastructure, increasing urbanization, changing climate, and shrinking budgets, among other factors.  These changes have increasingly stressed existing “static” stormwater management systems such as pipe networks, retention ponds, and detention ponds, that are intended simply to convey storm flows to nearby receiving waters without regard to overall system conditions.

Dealing with these stressors may require innovative solutions such as real time control (RTC) or “dynamic” stormwater management systems.  Continue reading “Real-time Control of Stormwater Management Systems”

COVID-19 and Water

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Without doubt, times are tough. The seemingly inexorable spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has left many of us desperate for good news. And make no mistake, there is some out there. First, it’s heartening to see the An image of the coronavirusincreased appreciation for those in the public health sector, and also for the unsung heroes of the war against COVID-19: grocery store personnel, garbage collectors, truckers, janitors, pharmacy clerks, postal workers, package deliverers, and others who we now realize are truly essential to a functioning modern society. Let me add one more group of people to that list: utility workers who keep our power on, our access to the internet active, and our clean water flowing. For example, to ensure a reliable water supply, some water treatment professionals are “sheltering in place” at a water treatment facility for the next three weeks. Others, right here in Wisconsin, are working twelve hour shifts in complete isolation to ensure that critical machinery remains operational.

That leads me to my second bit of good news: according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), our water supply is not threatened by COVID-19. Like most viruses, it is “particularly susceptible to disinfection,” a standard process at wastewater treatment plants. It seems appropriate to be grateful for this, given that Sunday was World Water Day. Imagine how terrible this crisis would become if we could not trust our drinking water. Continue reading “COVID-19 and Water”

A Retrospective on the “Year of Clean Drinking Water”

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2019 was a memorable year for those interested in Wisconsin’s water resources. During his January 2019 “State of the State” address, Governor Tony Evers declared it the “Year of Clean Drinking Water in Wisconsin,” making water a primary focus of his first year in office. Around the same time, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos announced the creation of a water quality task force to study water contamination issues. Shortly thereafter, I An exterior photo of the Wisconsin State Capitol.wrote a post describing a shorthand “top ten” list of issues for the administration and the task force to consider. In no particular order, my list included lead laterals, PFAS and other emerging contaminants, nutrient pollution, groundwater contamination and private wells, Great Lakes diversions, CAFO regulation, the DNR, infrastructure, high capacity wells and groundwater drawdown, and wetlands protection.

But now 2020 has arrived. What were the tangible results of the “Year of Clean Drinking Water”? Many promising efforts are underway and the state has made significant progress in some areas, but much remains to be done. The Governor’s declaration and the Speaker’s task force brought much needed public attention to water quality issues, but it would be a shame if that intense focus fades with the turning of the calendar. Governor Evers recognizes this, admitting in a recent interview that he knows the work will take much more than a year. And he expects Wisconsinites to support it in the longer term: “People like to have clean drinking water,” he said. “Who doesn’t want it? Who doesn’t need it?” Yet in his 2020 “State of the State” address Evers mentioned water only once, a late reference to “getting PFAS out of our water” as part of a list of things yet to be accomplished.

Here are the specifics of what happened last year:

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Climate Responsiveness at a Local Scale

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We often focus on the international level when discussing responses to climate change—for example, the just-concluded 25th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the ongoing struggle to operationalize the Paris Agreement, or even the war of words between President Trump and young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg.

A photo of Earth, taken from space.But a much wider spectrum of entities and organizations will have to conduct adaptation and mitigation measures to respond to the intensely local impacts of a changing climate. Among these are what used to be known as wastewater treatment utilities—now often called water reclamation facilities—that may have to deal with (among other things) predicted widespread flooding dangers caused by an increase in larger, more intense precipitation events.

For years, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District has been recognized as a “green leader” on a number of fronts, including climate change preparedness. The Marquette University Water Law and Policy Initiative received funding through the MMSD-Marquette WaterCARE grant program to examine and benchmark the District’s considerable climate progress against federal guidance, against actions taken by six peer utilities, and against the ambitious goals it has set for itself (the District seeks, by 2035, to meet 100% of the District’s energy needs with renewable sources, including 80% from internally generated sources, and to reduce its carbon footprint by 90% from its 2005 baseline). Earlier this month, the Initiative completed its work and issued a final report to the District.

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How Might Courts Interpret the Great Lakes Compact?

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When a coalition of environmental advocacy groups challenged the state of Wisconsin’s approval under the Great Lakes Compact of an out-of-basin water diversion to supply the Foxconn project, it came as no surprise to Peter Annin. “It’s not unexpected at all that there would eventually be legal challenges over the Great Lakes Compact,” Annin, the well-known Great Lakes journalist and author, said during an appearance last October at the Great Lakes from spaceLaw School’s Lubar Center. Like any other legal text, the Compact includes ambiguous terminology. For example, the Foxconn challenge centered on whether the application satisfied the Compact’s requirement that any out-of-basin diversion be for “public water supply purposes.” Annin predicted that the Compact’s meaning will be “refined” during such litigation, much as has happened with other important environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act or Clean Air Act.

The Foxconn challenge made history as the first state-level legal challenge based on the Great Lakes Compact; an earlier objection to the Waukesha approval was heard by the Compact Council itself. The Foxconn case never made it all the way to court, however; it ended with an administrative ruling by Wisconsin Administrative Law Judge Brian K. Hayes upholding the diversion approval. The plaintiffs decided not to appeal the decision. As I explained in a previous post, the context of the “public water supply purposes” language admitted of two possible interpretations: that the proposed diversion would be used for “public water supply purposes,” or that the system requesting the diversion, taken as a whole, served “public water supply purposes.” ALJ Hayes adopted the latter, vindicating the position of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. That decision—predicated on a textual analysis of the statute—is the primary takeaway from the case, and certainly important in its own right.

But other features of ALJ Hayes’ decision have been overlooked, and provide important clues about how future courts will interpret the Compact. Continue reading “How Might Courts Interpret the Great Lakes Compact?”

2019: The Year of Clean Drinking Water in Wisconsin

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Wisconsin is blessed with an abundance of water resources: 15,000 lakes, 43,000 river miles, 659 miles of frontage on two of the Great Lakes, and Sunrise over the lakegroundwater supplies sufficient to cover the whole state to a depth of 100 feet, just to name a few. But Wisconsin has its share of water problems, too, including many lead water service laterals, widespread well contamination, and battles over diversions from the Great Lakes.

Thus it came as a pleasant surprise to see state political leaders from both sides of the aisle prioritizing the importance of a clean, safe, abundant water supply for all Wisconsinites. First, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos announced the creation of a water quality task force to study water contamination issues. Then, in his January “State of the State” address, Governor Tony Evers declared 2019 the “Year of Clean Drinking Water in Wisconsin.” Governor Evers specifically mentioned widespread contamination in private wells and large numbers of lead service laterals among his priorities.

Last week I conducted an informal Twitter survey to learn what Wisconsin citizens believe that our political leaders should prioritize as part of these efforts. The response was overwhelming. In no particular order, here is a shorthand “top ten” list of issues for the administration and the task force to consider:

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Minimizing the Risk of Lead Intake at Schools

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It might come as a surprise to learn that federal law does not require public or private schools to test their drinking water sources for lead or for any other contaminant. Instead, the Safe Drinking Water Act operates by regulating the “public water systems” that deliver water to the schools. Too often, this broad focus on public systems overlooks the potential contamination sources on private (or school) property, such as lead service lines and indoor lead plumbing “fittings”—valves, bends, and the like. This gap in federal law presents an important opportunity for state intervention.

Indeed, the loophole has already led to some disturbing results. In Detroit, for example, officials found unsafe lead and copper levels at 57 of 86 schools tested. Testing in Vermont recently revealed lead contamination in over a dozen schools. And here in Milwaukee, testing showed high lead levels at 183 of Milwaukee Public School’s 3,000 drinking fountains, and at 28 of 425 water outlets tested at charter schools. Worse yet, a recent federal report shows that more than half of public school districts don’t test their water for lead at the point of delivery. Those that did test often found elevated levels of lead, as illustrated in the report’s summary figure:

Graphic showing lead testing by public school districts

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