Water Quality Task Force bills pass with some debate

By: Isiah Holmes, Wisconsin Examiner

Water quality wouldn’t seem like a partisan issue, and for the most part it appears the two sides of the Wisconsin’s legislature are approaching it with agreement. A package of 13 bills to address water quality issues that came to the Assembly for a vote on Tuesday had Republicans and Democrats alike agreeing that the bills are an important first step for the Badger State in improving drinking water and groundwater.

The majority of the bills, many of which are bipartisan, were prepared by the Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality.

“I think it’s important to realize that if Gov. Tony Evers had not declared 2019 the Year of Clean Drinking Water, we wouldn’t be here today making sure that we’re acting on not just clean drinking water, but surface water and water quality in general,” said Rep. Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point) at a news conference of Assembly Democrats before the session. As vice-chairwoman of the task force, Shankland applauded Evers for “bringing science back to the DNR [Department of Natural Resources].”

All together, the bills represent a $10 million effort to tackle water contamination throughout the state. Still a number of the bills were subject to the usual partisan bickering that proliferates Wisconsin politics.

Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said that Reps. Todd Novak (R-Dodgeville) and Travis Tranel (R-Cuba City) should be “commended” for starting the task force. “Unlike what you probably heard in the preceding press conference, this was not started by Gov. Tony Evers,” Vos said, referring to the Democratic news conference. “Even though I want to thank [Evers] for also calling this the year of clean water, it was actually started by my colleagues, Reps. Tranel and Novak, because of a concern in their districts.”

Setting aside the territorial posturing, representatives from both sides of the aisle said the bills represent progress. “Today we’ll be talking about and voting on initiatives that I co-authored with my colleagues of both parties,” said Shankland.

The bills cover a wide variety of issues, including well-testing grants, PFAS clean up, reducing nitrate loading, prohibiting the use of coal tar-based sealants, lake-protection grants and more. (A list of the bills on Tuesday’s agenda, all of which passed the Assembly, can be found here.)

“These bills are a good start to ensure everyone in Wisconsin can have clean drinking water, and I’m proud of the work that we did,” said Shankland, “but I want to continue to underscore the importance of future action.” She said she hopes for future bipartisan work within the task force, “so that we have an opportunity and a legislative vehicle to convene thoughtful, science-based conversations about how to prevent contamination.” Ultimately, she asserted, it should be the task force’s goal to, “make sure that everyone in Wisconsin can get clean drinking water from their taps and enjoy their local lake, river, or stream.”

Democrats stress that the goal of having clean drinking water includes Milwaukee, a city which saw funding to replace lead lateral lines cut during the budget battles. Republicans argued that too much of the $40 million Evers proposed to replace lead laterals around the state would go to Milwaukee. Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette) at the time equated  Evers’ plan to “people from Marinette funding lead replacements in Milwaukee … I’m not sure that that’s necessarily fair from a taxpayer standpoint.”

Nevertheless, urban areas with high numbers of minority residents, like Milwaukee, shouldn’t be forgotten in the state’s clean water efforts, say its representatives, especially with February being Black History Month, a time to remember the current and past struggles of that community.

“I’m glad that we are tackling water quality in general in the state,” Rep. David Crowley (D- Milwaukee) told Wisconsin Examiner, “but I would like to see more investments in the City of Milwaukee when you think about the lead laterals issue.” Crowley hopes moving forward, the state maintains an “equitable approach to all water quality issues,” noting that when it comes to lead contamination, “we know that it has had an adverse effect on our young people.”

Rep. LaKeshia Myers (D-Milwaukee) added that her concerns over lead lateral removal are heightened because the contaminated lines in the notoriously segregated city are in the mostly African American north side and the predominately Hispanic south side. Residents living in the 33th Street corridor, an African American neighborhood, are also burdened by increased risk of flooding and water damage.

Rep. Sondy Pope (D-Mount Horeb) and Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison), took issue with AB-794, which adds a public notice and comment requirement to both the DNR and the Department of Health Services (DHS) before certain groundwater standards and be implemented. They stressed the dangers of allowing private interests to shape regulations which affect environmental and public safety.

Rep. Shae Sortwell (R-Two Rivers), however, questioned why “having more public input is bad.” Shankland rebutted that the bill is about “giving industry an equal footing” with those whose responsibility it is to ensure public safety. “I’m frustrated that the task force has to have this debate,” said Shankland. “For decades the law has worked, there is no need to change the law to help out one industry, one group.”

Assembly Democratic leader Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh) singled out four  highlights of the $10 million bill package:

    • AB 789: This proposal supports low-income families by helping them remediate or treat the cause of their well contamination.
    • AB 790: This bill funds county land and water conservation staff by an additional $3 million, the recommended amount from conservation groups.
    • AB 797: This proposal prohibits the sale of coal tar-based sealant products and high PAH sealant products, it also prohibits their use unless given an exemption by the DNR.
    • AB 801: This proposal invests in the UW System Freshwater Collaborative. The bill requires the UW Board of Regents to fund a freshwater collaborative and appropriates $2 million in FY2020-21.

“Wisconsin has witnessed the erosion of water-quality standards across the state under Republican control,” Hintz said in a statement after the votes. “This $10 million investment is a down payment for our future.”

Clearly, more work is on the horizon. Shankland called the 13 water quality bills, “a great building block for future action.” She added with emphasis, “This is the beginning, not the end.”