Water Quality Task Force close to making recommendations - some will impact farming

By: Gloria Hafemeister, Wisconsin State Farmer 

WISCONSIN DELLS - The University of Wisconsin’s Discovery Farms program has been talking water quality since its inception in 2001. The discussion surrounding agriculture and water quality has grown and changed over the past 20 years, but researchers with the Discovery Farms program continue to contribute to efforts to improve water quality in the state.

Last week during the Discovery Farm’s annual meeting in Wisconsin Dells State Rep. Todd Novak and Rep. Katrina Shankland rolled out some details they'll be turning into legislative proposals from their Water Task Force. The two are chairing the state’s Water Quality Task Force after being appointed earlier this year by Wisconsin’s Assembly Speaker Robin Vos to gather information and make policy recommendations to better assess and improve the quality of both surface water and groundwater in Wisconsin. 

The top goal among their proposals is fully funding county conservation staffing statewide.

During the last year the Task Force held 14 hearings around the state to gather information about issues and concerns regarding water quality.

Shankland said, “Our focus is on science-based decision making. We understand that there is no one-size-fits all solution because of different issues in different areas of the state.”

She also points out that water quality issues did not occur overnight and will not be solved quickly.

Novak said everything that was brought up at the public hearings was seriously considered by task force members. 

The two listed the recommendations the Task Force is considering but mentioned that they will not be finalized until January when the final report will be released.  The recommendations will be up for vote in the Assembly in February and then will be considered in the Senate.

Besides the proposal to fully fund county conservationists they also recommend increased funding for nutrient management planning for farmers. Other recommendations include funding a well-compensation grant program; producer-led water protection grants; a grant program to reward counties that collaborate with others working on water quality issues; a system that creates one source of data in the state for monitoring wells.

The creation of an Alliance for Water Stewardship Certification program would reward companies and farms that prove they are operating responsibly.

The Task Force also recommends funding two of the eight water quality challenges that have already been identified by the University of Wisconsin’s Fresh Water Collaborative.

Novak said a final recommendation will create a clean water fund source but he said the Task Force is still working on this and they are not yet ready to reveal what that source will be.

He said the goal of the Task Force is to eventually get all of their recommendations into law. He encouraged the participants at the Discovery Farms conference to take a closer look at the recommendations when they are officially presented to the state legislature and then encourage their representatives to support them.

He also advised, “Stay active in the producer led groups, encourage your neighbors to test their wells annually and continue to work with county conservationists.”

Several producer-led groups are active in this area and had representatives at the Discovery Farms conference to learn about ways to produce their crops and raise their livestock while protecting ground water.

Tony Peirick and Marty Weiss, organizers of the Dodge County Healthy Soils Healthy Waters group have been actively promoting ways to improve water quality while maintaining healthy soils on their farms.

Peirick said he is thankful that the Task Force is recommending increased funding for local conservationists and for the producer-led groups.  Healthy soils groups like the one he is involved with have been making a great deal of progress encouraging farmers to plant cover crops, consider no-till and take other steps to prevent soil and nutrient loss.  Funding has come from local lakes associations but he says state funding would help the effort considerably.

He says he is also impressed with the work of the researchers with the Discovery Farms program because their research is on real farms with different soil conditions and challenges.

While many farmers in the state are utilizing nutrient management plans that make recommendations for fertilizer use based on what is already available and what is still needed for a healthy crop he says there are still too many farmers who are using more nitrogen fertilizer than the crop can actually use.

He says this not only creates the potential for nitrogen leaching but it also adds to the cost of raising a healthy crop. He would like to see more farmers work with private consultants who test soil and determine exactly what a crop needs rather than rely on the recommendations of sales people for their fertilizer needs.

The Discovery Farms conference also included reports from researchers on the nutrient loss study; a review of the southwest Wisconsin Groundwater and Geology study, and a panel discussion by farmers who have had success with alternative crops and cover crops in this challenging year of farming.