OPINIONClean water is essential. We need clean and safe water for people, our animals, our crops and our way of life. The issue is one of the central concerns of Wisconsin government right now.
I have been asked, “What are you doing about water?” by a number of different people and organizations and I wanted to share my efforts and answers.
Right about the new year, preliminary data from the Southwest Wisconsin Groundwater and Geology Study told us 42 percent of 301 private wells in Iowa, Grant and Lafayette counties in Wisconsin exceeded standards for bacteria or nitrates. Prior to that revelation, citizens in Juneau County were alerted that a large number of private wells near Armenia were also testing extremely high for nitrates.
I recently met with Lynda Schweikert, Grant County Land Conservationist, and Katherine Abbott, Iowa County Land Conservationist, to discuss the study. They provided an overview of current results. They discussed the next phase and what they hope to learn.
I also attended a Lafayette Ag Stewardship Alliance meeting and met with Ken Bradbury, director and state geologist, Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, and University of Wisconsin–Extension. Also there was Joel Stokdyk, biologist, Laboratory for Infectious Disease and the Environment, U.S. Geological Survey. They presented the preliminary results of the Southwest Wisconsin Groundwater and Geology Study and plans for the next phase.
Schweikert, Abbot, Bradbury and Stokdyk all said the second phase of the study is key. It will provide us with the data we need to determine the real causes and potential solutions to water-quality issues in our communities. They will be doing DNA testing on the pollutants to determine where they are coming from. We do not know if the bacteria or nitrates are coming from farms, septic systems, faulty well casings or other sources. We simply do not know the answer to this question … yet.
The second phase of the study is designed to help us answer that question. Once we know where the pollutants are coming from, we can work together to address the problems. According to the scientists it’s too soon to place blame.
That doesn’t mean we aren’t working on water-quality initiatives. There are several programs, policies and organizations I have led and supported to address water-quality issues we already know exist. Several of those programs are already making significant impacts in our communities.
Even before the Southwest Wisconsin Groundwater and Geology Study began, I was the coauthor of 2017 Act 196 that added $500,000 to the Producer-Led Watershed Protection Grant program so that the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade & Consumer Protection could distribute as much as $750,000 to water-quality projects in both years of the latest biennium. Groups like the Lafayette Ag Stewardship Alliance, Pecatonica Pride, Farmers for the Sugar River, the Trout Creek-Mill Creek Watershed Group, the Tainter Creek Farmer-Led Watershed Council and the Uplands Watershed Group have received about $138,250 to do watershed-protection programs in the 17th Senate District. Of all grant funds in the program, 19 percent have come to our communities since 2014. I will be promoting investment in the program again in the next budget.
I also led the effort to fully fund the Wisconsin Fund grant program because Grant County is one of the largest users of the fund. The Wisconsin Fund provides grants for Private Onsite Wastewater Treatment System maintenance and repair. Providing those grants helps low-income families stay in their homes. The grants protect groundwater by helping to replace and maintain failing septic systems. In the previous budget I moved to maintain funding for Private Onsite Wastewater Treatment System grants for $840,000 each year of biennium, totaling $1.6 million. I will also promote investment and continuation of that program in the next budget.
I have already co-sponsored several bills this session that take on existing known water-quality challenges. One of those bills, authored by Wis. Sen. Rob Cowles, R-2-Green Bay, and Wis. Sen. Jerry Petrowski, R-29-Marathon, creates a water-quality-credit marketplace.
It’s a good bill because it will create stronger financial incentives for unregulated non-point sources such as farmers to do projects that improve water quality. It will then create a way for extremely regulated point sources such as municipal wastewater treatment plants to purchase those credits from the farmers as a part of water-quality permit requirements. There is only so much a wastewater treatment plant can do. They need that type of real-world partnership to truly impact water quality without creating an extreme financial burden on our communities. The bill will address real water-quality issues with real opportunities for actual results. That is just one bill of several we are working on to improve water quality statewide.
I recently co-sponsored a nitrate-testing pilot program that proposes to create a $10 million grant program for recipients to apply for as much as $2,500 per household to pay for testing of private wells, and install filtration systems or pay for repairs. The grants under that bill would be administered by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services so the grants fulfill the public-health concern posed by nitrate contamination.
I am also co-sponsoring Senate Bill (SB) 31, which will require all water-pollutant discharge-elimination-system permit fees collected from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations must be deposited into the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources account for environmental quality, and be used for management of Wisconsin water resources. I believe those fees should be dedicated to addressing the issues for which the permits are designed, and support our efforts to study and correct water-quality crises.
Looking ahead, Wis. Rep. Robin Vos, R-63-Burlington, Assembly Speaker, created a Water Quality Task Force and appointed Wis. Rep. Todd Novak, R-51-Dodgeville, as the chairman. He also appointed Wis. Rep. Travis Tranel, R-49-Cuba City, and Wis. Rep. Tony Kurtz, R-50-Wonewoc, to the task force. I am thrilled that all three members of the Assembly from the 17th Senate District are taking leadership roles on the issue. We will take recommendations from the task force, and move additional programs and projects forward.
The bottom-line is we all want clean water. We want clean water for our families, our children and our grandchildren. Farmers want clean water for their animals and their crops. As a state we want clean water for our quality of life in general. We all have the same goal.
We are fortunate to have scientists, conservationists, farmers and community organizations working with us to achieve those goals. We are also fortunate we have a lot of options that we can already work on. The final results of the Southwest Wisconsin Groundwater and Geology Study will give us an even clearer view of potential solutions. I predict we will need to address water quality in southwest Wisconsin from several angles. I don’t believe there is only one entity to blame. I think we have a big job ahead of us.
Please note that many residents in Grant, Iowa and Lafayette counties who own private wells will be receiving invitations to participate in the second phase of the Southwest Wisconsin Groundwater and Geology Study later this month. I encourage everyone to consider participating to be part of the long-range solutions to our water-quality issues.
So what am I doing on water? I am supporting programs that are already working, and making plans to continue that support into the future. I am leading and supporting legislation that addresses identified issues now. I am studying and seeking information for new ways to address new issues. I am advocating for strong data-driven recommendations to make good decisions.
If anyone has additional ideas or input about water-quality issues, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I appreciate all partnership in this work.