Wisconsin’s water quality regulators failed to follow their own policies on enforcement against polluters more than 94 percent of the time over the last decade, the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau said in a report released Friday.

From 2005 to 2015, there was a general decline in state Department of Natural Resources enforcement activity to protect lakes, streams and groundwater from large livestock farms, factories and sewage treatment plants that discharge liquid waste, according to the bureau’s 124-page report.

During a period when elected officials from both political parties have decreased DNR staffing, notices of violations were issued to polluters in just 33 of 558 instances serious enough for such citations under DNR policies, the audit found.

The DNR’s record of meeting its goals for inspections of polluting facilities every two to three years has been uneven, with the standard being met for fewer than half of the places many years. And some inspections of concentrated animal feeding operations — 6.5 percent of the total — took place after the agency reissued the farm’s permits instead of before, a violation of state and federal law aimed at ensuring CAFOs keep their huge quantities of manure out of water, auditors said.

Much enforcement is based on compliance reports polluters are supposed to file annually, but auditors found that DNR staff didn’t have time to fully review the reports. Only 36 of 1,900 CAFO reports were electronically recorded as having been received by DNR field offices, making it impossible for supervisors to spot problems.

“The report provides a pretty damning assessment,” said Sarah Geers, a staff attorney for Midwest Environmental Advocates, a public interest law firm that has challenged the DNR to improve its performance. “A lot needs to be done.”

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