Lawmakers call $10 million plan to safeguard Wisconsin water a starting point to build on

By: Briana Reilly, The Cap Times 

The heads of the state Water Quality Task Force say their $10 million package of bills is a building block for future action to curb contamination and take more proactive steps to safeguard Wisconsin water.

But in the meantime, Reps. Todd Novak and Katrina Shankland are working to get their bills to bolster well testing, conservation efforts and more to Gov. Tony Evers' desk as the legislative session draws to a close.

The 13-bill package, unveiled earlier this month, seeks to increase aid for county conservationist staffing, create an Office of Water Policy within the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey and form a “nitrogen optimization pilot program” to award grants to ag producers and universities that reduce nitrogen use when growing crops. 


The bills are already starting to see movement in the Republican-controlled Legislature, leaving Novak and Shankland confident they'll clear the Assembly and "hopeful" they could get through the Senate, where other bills have been hung up and faced scrutiny over their price tags. 

Still, Novak noted new projections showing Wisconsin is expected to see $452 million more in the state's general fund by mid-2021 than previously thought "may help us a bit" in passing the package through both chambers. 

"Some of the senators are concerned about finances and stuff but I think the new revenue estimates will give us a little more leverage," the Dodgeville Republican said, adding he has "allies" in the Senate in both parties on the issue. 

 Novak, who chaired the task force, and Shankland, the vice-chair, spoke about the bills at a Wisconsin Water Alliance event in Madison Wednesday. While they touted the legislation, they both stressed more needs to be done, including action on lead and emerging contaminants such as PFAS, in future years. 

"I don’t think that our work ends this session," said Shankland, D-Stevens Point. "I certainly think it needs to continue."

On PFAS, the task force's bill would require the state agriculture agency to work with the Department of Natural Resources to collect and store or get rid of firefighting foam that contains the group of chemicals linked to cancer, reproductive problems and a host of other health issues. 

There have been separate movement on PFAS this month. Both the Senate and Assembly last week approved a bill to limit the use of firefighting foam containing PFAS, sending it to Evers' desk. But some Democrats have criticized the measure for not going far enough. 

Evers also highlighted the issue in his State of the State speech, where he urged lawmakers to get the so-called forever chemicals "out of our water."

 Going forward, Shankland stressed the importance of developing "a long-term PFAS strategy," and she hinted that there are "behind-the-scenes" conversations happening now surrounding what that could look like. 

Meanwhile, Novak said "there's stuff in the works" on a potential PFAS bill, and he said he "would not be surprised" if one doesn't emerge yet this session. 

Novak was one of two lawmakers who initially requested the body be created, in light of a report detailing groundwater contamination in wells in southwestern Wisconsin. Most recently, a new round of research in Grant, Iowa and Lafayette counties found most of the wells tested were contaminated by fecal matter from animals and humans.

The task force, which was first announced by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, last February, held more than a dozen hearings across the state in 2019, which Evers declared to be the “Year of Clean Drinking Water.” 

 Even with a dozen recommendations from the task force, both Shankland and Novak highlighted one effort the full panel wasn't ultimately able to introduce this session: a push to create a Wisconsin water fund to support continuing water quality initiatives. 

The idea isn't new. Minnesota has its own Clean Water Fund, which collects revenue through a sales tax. The generated dollars go toward four different funds, including the Clean Water Fund, which looks to safeguard water quality across lakes, rivers, streams and groundwater, as well as protect drinking water. 

But Novak noted while "there is no appetite" to creating a Wisconsin fund through a sales tax, he raised the possibility of allocating general purpose revenue toward it, adding he hopes to have a bill ready next session. 

"We can’t keep addressing water every budget cycle," he said. "We need a sustainable fund so when issues come up and we need to pass a bill, we can go through the clean water fund."  

Shankland last week introduced bipartisan legislation to form a "Clean Water Fund for Our Future" that would be funded by a $10 million GPR transfer every budget cycle and overseen by a new committee. 

Describing the bill as "a trial balloon," she noted that when the state is faced with "cleaning up massive contamination, whether it’s nitrate or PFAS, we’re looking at billions of dollars over the long-term."

Separately, Democrats this week, led by Shankland, also introduced five bills to bolster water quality in the state that included initiatives proposed by Evers in his budget that were ultimately removed. And Novak said in the coming weeks Republicans may be introducing their own water legislation to cover things the task force "might have missed."