Wisconsin lawmakers advance bipartisan bill targeting water pollution

By Chris Hubbach


Even as attempts to regulate agricultural pollution have faltered, Wisconsin lawmakers have advanced rare bipartisan legislation aimed at improving water quality.

The Legislature’s budget committee voted unanimously Tuesday to advance companion bills that would provide up to $1.4 million per year to help farmers keep fertilizer on their fields and out of lakes, rivers and groundwater, and fund a new position within the University of Wisconsin System to monitor groundwater quality.

Based on recommendations of a 2019 legislative water quality task force, the bills broadly target nitrate, Wisconsin’s most prevalent groundwater contaminant and a contributor to toxic algae blooms that can kill fish and shut beaches.

A separate pair of bills would expand eligibility for well replacement grants to include wells contaminated with bacteria or nitrate.

“No single approach can solve our water pollution problems,” said Sen. Rob Cowles, a Green Bay Republican who sponsored the Senate bills. “But concerted efforts such as these can make a noticeable impact for the state’s agricultural producers, rural residents, and those who enjoy recreating on Wisconsin waters.”

The bills are advancing even as the Department of Natural Resources recently scrapped a two-year effort to implement new regulations on manure and fertilizer in areas vulnerable to groundwater contamination. The agency announced in November that it could not complete the rulemaking process within the Legislature’s timeframe.

About 1.7 million people in Wisconsin rely on private wells for drinking water, and the Department of Health Services estimates at least one in 10 Wisconsin wells has high levels of nitrate, which is considered hazardous, especially for pregnant women and infants.

Farm fertilizer and manure are the main sources of nitrate pollution, though faulty septic systems can also contribute to the problem.

Specifically, the bills would fund grants of up to $50,000 to help farmers come up with creative ways to “optimize the application” of commercial nitrogen fertilizer and create a $5 per acre crop insurance rebate to offset the cost of planting cover crops, which help hold soil and nutrients in place.

“The idea behind this bill is to reward farmers who want to experiment with nitrogen loading, while helping them absorb any risk attached with changing their commercial nitrogen application practices,” said Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point.


The legislation has broad support from agriculture, conservation and public health groups, though some environmental advocates say they don’t go far enough.

River Alliance executive director Allison Werner called them “a step in the right direction” but called on lawmakers to adopt the DNR’s proposed performance standards.

“This collaborative and science-based process is almost complete,” Werner testified. “The legislature should approve these rules if they are serious about reducing the impact of nitrate on our waters.”

Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state chamber of commerce, and the Wisconsin Dairy Alliance are wary of a provision that would fund a fourth hydrogeologist to help develop groundwater data for the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey.

Craig Summerfield, director of environmental policy for WMC, warned that Gov. Tony Evers could use his broad veto powers to “radically” alter the bill and additional groundwater data could be used “as fresh justification” to push new regulations.

“While only one position might seem harmless enough,” Summerfield testified, “the dairy industry and especially our members have already expended significant time and resources correcting the record to combat biased research.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the last name of Allison Werner, the River Alliance executive director.