Legislative panel discusses rural water issues and agriculture's role in finding solutions

By: Carol Spaeth-Bauer, Wisconsin State Farmer 

MADISON – Doing a lot of work around the state with the watershed initiative, Dennis Frame took away one thing — farmers are natural problem solvers and when they know what is involved in an issue, they will find a way to solve it. 

Frame, the co-director of the Discovery Farms Program from 2001 to 2013, was excited to serve as moderator for a water panel discussion with six Wisconsin legislators during the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Ag Day at the Capitol. As he told the Farm Bureau members attending the event, “You guys have it all figured out and all these guys have to do is implement it, right?”

The “guys” doing the implementing were Senators Howard Marklein and Patrick Testin, and Representatives Todd Novak, Katrina Shankland, Travis Tranel and Tony Kurtz who took time to answer questions on water quality issues as part of the panel discussion.

Most pressing rural water issues

When asked what they see as the most pressing rural water issues facing the state of Wisconsin, Marklein didn't like how people jumped into the "blame game" when initial water quality reports came out.

"One of my biggest concerns in this whole thing is that we make sure that you don't let your emotions get in the way of good judgement. That we be thoughtful," Marklein said. "Solutions are going to vary depending on the soil conditions and topography around the state." 

Testin agreed, saying instead of pointing fingers it was important to get all stakeholders from across the state to the table and discuss what issues are coming up. 

"We heard common themes and we also heard that different areas of the state face different challenges," Testin pointed out. 

Testin represents a large portion of the Central sands area where they rely heavily on the ag industry. 

"We need to make sure we strive to strike a balance and ensure that our industry can still be able to produce and buy for their employees and their families, but also making sure that resident who may have these elevated nitrite levels can go to their taps and get clean water."

 Testin is encouraged by the work the Water Quality Task Force has done of the past several months to come up with sound proposals that address not only short term and intermediate needs but long terms goals set in the right direction. 

When the task force started, they heard from over 70 stakeholder groups, Novak said. Farmers testified at every hearing and talked about their practices and what they were doing. 

"They said, hey, we're a piece of this puzzle. We want to be part of the solution and be on board," said Novak.

Shankland sees the most pressing raw water issue as nutrient contamination because "we know it is the most prevalent contaminant, but it isn't the only one."

Ag's role in solutions

So what is agriculture's role in developing solutions for cleaner water throughout Wisconsin?

Shankland is excited to see initiatives that are thoughtful and "move the needle on water qualities while helping farmers maintain resiliency and profitability," she said. "I think that's the most important part of any conversation when we're talking about agriculture is if we're looking at clean water and a need to study and be careful about the nexus between profitability and sustainability and make sure we're marrying those two."

Farmers and watershed groups helped guide legislators as they wrote bills Novak said. Since water issues are not going away, "this is something we're going to continue to do as a Legislature so I think farmers need to be engaged with us," Novak said."Talk to us. Give us your ideas because we are open.... We want to hear good things and practices farmers have done."

When it comes to agriculture and water, Tranel, a fifth generation dairy farmer said, "I think we all acknowledge that agriculture has a huge aspect to play in keeping our water clean and helping to improve the quality of our water."

As he and Novak went around the state hearing from different stakeholders, one thing that kept coming to mind for Tranel was that although agriculture has a significant role to play in cleaning up the water, "we can't expect agriculture to foot the bill," especially with the way markets have been. 

While farmers have a lot of responsibility when it comes to water and they welcome that responsibility, "we have to be cognizant of the fact that we still have to be able to pay our bills at the end of the month," he added.

Kurtz, an organic grain farmer, sees farmers as the leaders in developing solutions for cleaner water. He's seen many farmers take time to tell their story. "To me that was so powerful," said Kurtz. "If you got out there and you told that story and you made an impact, especially as we move forward with a lot of these water quality task force bills."

Testin said it's about getting feedback from the ag community and working in a collaborative manner "to make sure we're not strangling an industry out of existence."