Like any red-blooded American, one of the first actions I took after coming home from work was to check my Facebook feed. And since I tend to lean into the tree-hugging libtard crowd that Donald Trump warned you about, near the top of my feed was an Action Alert posted by the River Alliance of Wisconsin, noting the sudden introduction of Senate Bill 493 (SB 493) near the tail end of the current legislative session. Further down that feed were several other posts also referencing SB 493 and it’s implications.
I’m not much of a politico, but the Facebook version of the bill sounds pretty bad. SB 493 would include numerous changes to how aquaculture facilities (i.e. fish farms) could conduct their business in relation to public waterways. It was introduced on Monday, January 4 by Senators Tom Tiffany and Richard Gudex, and had a public hearing only twenty-four hours later on January 5.
I decided to delve a little bit deeper to try and understand what this bill actually meant for a Joe Fisherman like myself. I read through the analysis of the bill by the Legislative Reference Bureau, which I take to be a “Legislative Text for Dummies” kind of thing. Now, it doesn’t sound quite as bad as I first thought (again, please note, my knowledge of the legislative process has largely been gleaned from Schoolhouse Rock, so take my opinions for what you will), but there are numerous pieces of the legislation that raise an eyebrow, and leave you wondering why the change is necessary:
- SB 493 would expand the types of natural water bodies that can be used for aquaculture. Currently only freeze-out ponds (bodies of water that, due to freezing of periods of anoxia, cannot naturally support fish populations), pre-existing fish rearing facilities, or bodies of water for which the DNR has issued permits, can be used for aquaculture. SB 493 would allow for the use of springs, when those springs are already supplying flow to an artificial water body being used as a fish farm. It would also lift restrictions for natural water bodies to be used if a permit was previously issued for the use of that water body for the use of fish farming, and the permittee does nothing else but maintain that water body.
- SB 493 would not require a dam placed on a navigable water body to maintain a minimum flow on that water body, if that water is eventually returned to that navigable water body. Current state laws requires a minimum of 25 percent of baseflow to be maintained from any dam constructed on a navigable water body.
- SB 493 would exempt aquaculture facilities from requiring a permit to construct, dredge, or enlarge an artificial water body that is connected to a navigable water body. It would also allow for the grading of the banks along navigable water bodies if the project removes no more than 10,000 square feet of topsoil.
- SB 493 would include aquaculture in the list of permitted agricultural activities allowed along the Lower Wisconsin Riverway, providing it meets soil and water quality standards.
- SB 493 would also make changes to how the DNR reviews permits for water quality variances, how water withdrawals from aquaculture are measured for the purposes of the Great Lakes Compact, allows for cost-sharing exemptions of aquaculture from nonpoint pollution performance standards, and allows the DOT to issue permits for vehicles transporting fish that exceed certain weight limits.
Now, let’s get to the meat of this bill: the transportation of fish in big, heavy vehicles. Just kidding! No one gives a shit about that.
The most contentious parts of this bill are hose that could have a direct impact of navigable water bodies, which certainly could include trout streams.
Expanding the types of water bodies for fish farming to include springs is disappointing, but it does limit the use of springs already associated with fish farms. Allowing for fish farming along navigable water bodies also seems like a steaming pile of bullshit, but here is my question: who are the persons that have previously-issued permits along natural water bodies? This point seems pretty specific- note that it is not allowing for the aquaculture along every natural water body in the state (which, I must say, the Action Alert put out by River Alliance insinuates), just those where permits were previously issued by the DNR. Most specifically, which persons within the districts represented by Senators Tiffany and Dudex have said permits? It just seems a little too fine, in my opinion.
It should also be noted that, regardless of the types of water bodies that can be used for aquaculture, there is still a permitting process that takes place through the DNR to allow for aquaculture along natural water bodies. It does not appear that this bill does anything to change or circumvent this process (those River Alliance suggest that these may be “forever permits”, compared to the renewal process that currently takes place). Since most of these natural water bodies are also part of the public trust, the permits must be publicly announced and a thirty day period is given for public comments on the permit (which is posted at the previous link). If SB 493 does become law, understanding the public input process is important.
However, it seems in regards to the discharge allowed by dams on navigable streams is not going to allow for any sort of public input. From my reading it appears that the dams can only restrict base flow if the water drawn from the dam is then returned to the navigable body of water. However, I don’t think this entirely disallows dewatering of a portion of the the navigable water body downstream of the dam. In essence the returned water will be waste water (even if treated), and I question how it may affect wild fish populations downstream.
There will also not be any permitting process required for the expansion of dredging of artificial water bodies connected to navigable water bodies, nor will there be a permit required for grading the banks along the navigable body itself so long as it doesn’t disturb more than 10,000 square feet of topsoil. This means no public input or opposition to such changes, which could potentially impact navigable trout streams for which the public has a right to use.
Finally (and this is more personal) I don’t like the idea of allowing aquaculture along the Lower Wisconsin Riverway. It is a great walleye, smallmouth, and muskie fishery, and is beautiful to boot. This is probably sacrilegious for a comparison, but the idea of opening up the operation of fish farms along our state namesake reminds me a bit of the controversy taking place on the AuSable River in Michigan. (I would like to point out that Dan Vogler, the owner of the fish rearing facility on the AuSable, was quoted by michiganradio.org as saying that most of the opposition to his operation was coming from “…mean-spirited individuals with $2,000 fly rods who are intent on destroying the livelihoods of hardworking farm families.” Shows how much he knows, my rod only cost $400.)
In summary, this bill is not good. It is one in a series of bills recently introduced through the legislature that undermines water quality and environmental standards in Wisconsin and threaten the future of our fisheries: be they trout, bass, panfish, muskie, and whatever else you might want to wet a line for. They are presented as means to eliminate needless red tape that stall commercial and economic development, ignoring the $2 billion that sportfishing contributes to our state’s economy on an annual basis, and creates over 21,000 jobs in Wisconsin (according to a 2013 report by the American Sportfishing Association). That does not include the countless hours that we anglers spend in contemplation on a quiet stretch of trout water, or drifting lazily down a wide river in search of bronzebacks, or sharing the joy of fishing with our son or daughter or nephew or niece on a small pond, a crappie pole, and a bucket of worms. I won’t even try to put a price on that.
If you agree that this is not a good bill, consider contacting your legislators to let them know how you feel. You can quickly find your representatives through this interactive legislative map.