Wisconsin Assembly passes $10 million slate of bills to safeguard water

By: Briana Reilly, APG Wisconsin 

A $10 million package of bills seeking to curb water contamination, increase well testing and bolster conservation efforts cleared the Wisconsin Assembly Tuesday. 

The legislation, from the bipartisan Water Quality Task Force, now heads to the state Senate for approval, where other bills have been hung up and faced scrutiny over their price tags, before it can go to Gov. Tony Evers' desk. 

Introduced officially last month, the 13-bill package comes as more attention has been paid to emerging contaminants across Wisconsin, such as PFAS, a group of chemicals linked to cancer, reproductive problems and a host of other health issues.

Lawmakers from both parties applauded the effort and called on the Legislature to build on the actions in future sessions. 

"This is just the start," said Rep. Todd Novak, who chaired the task force. "This is not the end." 

"Water contamination has been decades in the making and it’s going to take some time to get there," the Dodgeville Republican added. 

Democrats credited lawmakers as well as Evers’ declaration of 2019 as “the year of clean drinking water” for getting the legislation to the floor. 

"I don’t think we’d be here with quite a big package of bills if it weren’t for people like Gov. Tony Evers and our DNR secretary," said Democratic Rep. Katrina Shankland, the panel's vice-chair, who also lauded the governor for "leading on this issue." 

All but three of the bills are bipartisan. That trio — including a measure that would change rules for municipal flood control grants — passed over complete opposition from Democrats, while the remaining bills in the package received unanimous support. 

Those include legislation that seeks to increase aid for county conservationist staffing by $2.9 million annually; 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 agriculture producers and universities that reduce nitrogen use when growing crops.

Other bills would allocate $150,000 for biomanipulation projects to adjust species within a body of water to improve its quality; and provide $250,000 in one-time funding for the collection of firefighting foam that contains PFAS and more. 

There have been separate movements on PFAS already this year. Both the Senate and Assembly approved a bill to limit the use of firefighting foam containing PFAS, which Evers later signed. 

The governor also highlighted the topic in his State of the State speech, when he urged lawmakers to get the so-called forever chemicals “out of our water.”

Meanwhile, a number of other bills to tackle PFAS are making their way through the committee process, including two comprehensive bipartisan measures carrying a $7.7 million price tag that target already-polluted areas and ways to address existing contamination. 

Still, the push is likely stalled amid opposition from industry groups, who say they were excluded from the drafting process. 

The water quality bills considered Tuesday came about after two lawmakers, including Novak, initially asked that Assembly Speaker Robin Vos create the body 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.

Other bills that passed the chamber include: 

  • Legislation that would create a central water pollution credit clearinghouse where large-scale facilities (that discharge pollutants directly into the environment) and farms (that pollute via runoff) could trade with one another. Currently the practice is allowed under state law but backers hope the effort could bolster it. The state Senate passed the legislation in May, and it was approved via voice vote in the Assembly Tuesday. 

  • bipartisan effort designed to drive down prescription drug costs in Wisconsin by creating new rules for pharmaceutical benefit managers, or PBMs, which act as go-betweens for pharmacies and health insurance companies by managing prescription drug plans, negotiating prices and processing claims. It was approved on a 96-0 vote.