Monday, December 7, 2020

Water policy expert Ambs elevated to WI DNR Deputy Secretary

Good to see the Evers administration moving Todd Ambs into the #2 DNR post:

Prior to his return to the DNR in 2019 as Assistant Deputy Secretary, Todd was the DNR’s Water Division administrator from 2003-2010, where he was lead negotiator for the State of Wisconsin during the development of the Great Lakes Compact. Todd has worked in the environmental policy field for more than 30 years, most recently as the campaign director for Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition.

For context, remember that Walker inserted into the same position a former building industry executive who argued against Wisconsin joining the Great Lakes Compact, and managed day-to-day agency operations when it preferred permit-holders' voluntary compliance.

Environmental enforcement activity by the state Department of Natural Resources has dropped dramatically in the past two years, according to data from the agency, with the number of permit violation notices hitting a 12-year low in 2011.

DNR officials say the decrease is partly caused by an enforcement staff that's been hit hard by budget cuts. But they also point to a philosophical shift that emphasizes cooperating with businesses by helping them navigate complex state and federal regulations and steering them into compliance when they violate their permits.

For even more context, let me refer back to something I posted in 2019 - including submissions in a separate 2017 posting by a variety of Wisconsin environmental experts - to which Ambs had contributed:

Props to Wisconsin DNR Secretary-designee Preston Cole for announcing the appointment of Great Lakes advocate and former DNR Water Division Administrator Todd Ambs
Lake Michigan
to the agency's #3 management post.
The Ambs' appointment will return to the DNR some of the expertise and historical memory stripped away during Scott Walker's eight-year war on the agency and the environment....
In November, 2017 Ambs contributed substantially to a posting on this blog from a number of current and past DNR staffers, along with a variety of other observers, about the damage done during the Walker years and what could be done to repair it. 
The commentaries stretched over two lengthy posts, which I combined, here, and I commend all the submissions for your review. 
I will extract Ambs contribution below so you can get a feel for who's being added to the DNR team and what the appointment may portend:


As the former Water Division Administrator for the Wisconsin DNR, I have watched with sorrow and dismay as the Wisconsin Legislature and the Walker Administration have dramatically reduced protections for the waters of our state – waters that are held in trust for all of us.

From passing a bill that actually prohibits the department from taking actions to protect public drinking water supplies to administrative actions in the department that have decimated the commitment to integrated water resource management, each action has been taken with a disregard for protecting the resource and a laser focus on making it easier for the regulated permit holders to conduct business without regard to the environment.

The latest legislative proposal to remove state protections for one million acres of wetlands in the state, ignores a basic fact. The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment. The third largest industry in Wisconsin is tourism. 

It sustains much of the state but in particular, the northern third of Wisconsin. We have world class resources in this state. On the water ledger alone, we find 15,000 lakes, 84,000 miles of rivers and streams, 5.3 million acres of wetlands and 1100 miles of Great Lakes shoreline. 

We have groundwater resources that are the envy of much of the world, let alone the nation, although they are not evenly distributed and in short supply in some areas. 

We have water resources that have historically provided the foundation for the tourism industry and a strong quality of life for the rest of the workforce in the state, because we had world class protections for these world class resources.

All of those protections and in turn, this economic driver for the state, are under continuing assault. 

For many years, the mission of the Water Division, which doesn’t even exist anymore, was four-fold:

* Fully enforce the Clean Water Act
* Uphold the Public Trust Doctrine
* Protect Drinking and Groundwater Supplies
* Maintain Outstanding Fisheries

Objectives and strategies were developed around those goals. Progress was measured against those priorities. We weren’t always successful and it wasn’t always as integrated and efficient as we aspired to be, but we knew what we were trying to achieve. 

So what is this DNR trying to achieve for the water resources of our state? I have seen no evidence of a natural resource based mission anymore. 

Yes, the DNR should always be working to issue permits in an efficient and timely manner. 

But if the driving force behind those permits is simply to issue them as fast as possible, then just move the whole operation to the Department of Regulations and Licensing and skip the pretense of natural resource protection. 

Finally, as many people have already pointed out, the real issue here may well be the sheer lack of resources to do the job. 

Perhaps we should start with funding. Our neighbors in Minnesota raised their sales tax through a state referendum. Voters overwhelmingly approved a tax that generates nearly $200 million a year for clean water, parks, and wildlife.

Why not something similar here? If users are supposed to fully fund activities they desire, such as the recent decision to fund state parks only through fees, then we should look to raise other fees as well.  

Some candidates should include:

* Waste water permits – these fees have not been raised since the 1990’s.

* High capacity well permits – last raised in 2004. 

* Permits for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations – fees for CAFO’s were last adjusted when we had a total of 40 of these large animal raising operations. We now have nearly 300 and have roughly the same number of staff to review and approve permits and make sure that these farms are operating in accordance with those permits.

The stakes here are high, not just for our natural resources but for our economy as well. Make no mistake. Each time we eliminate a protection for our natural capital, our resources, we reduce the ability to sustain our economic well-being as well. - - 

Todd L. Ambs was the Water Division Administrator in the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources from 2003-2010. 

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