By Katrina Shankland | member, Wisconsin Assembly
It’s National Drinking Water Week, a time to recognize the role our drinking water plays in our lives. In 2016, I wrote a column for the Cap Times describing Wisconsin’s groundwater at a crisis point and outlining years of inaction on an issue that required our immediate attention. Nothing has changed in our water quality — the crisis is growing. But something big is happening in the Capitol — our governor and his administration are listening and acting with urgency.
In one of his first actions upon taking office, Gov. Tony Evers declared 2019 the "year of clean drinking water." I’ve always believed that actions speak louder than words, especially in politics. That’s why I’m thrilled to see that Gov. Evers has reinforced his strong words with meaningful actions on clean water.
The governor appointed Department of Natural Resources Secretary-designee Preston Cole, who identified clean water as one of the DNR’s top priorities, stating he will work with agriculture to address manure contamination of drinking water. Gov. Evers’ budget dedicates more funding for DNR scientists, and it specifically invests in scientists to address emerging contaminants like PFAS and more staff to enforce CAFO rules.
The governor’s budget invests $70 million in funds for drinking water and surface water. From replacing lead pipes to cleaning up phosphorus and remediating wells contaminated by nitrate and coliform bacteria, this funding will strengthen existing partnerships and provide much-needed resources to people in rural and urban areas alike. We’ve had years of inaction, with the DNR being gutted to historic levels under the previous governor. It’s thrilling to have Gov. Evers recognize that the only way forward is by facing the problem head-on and dedicating resources to it.
The biggest change I’ve seen in the Capitol is that the administration is leading with science. When the DNR, the Department of Health Services, and the Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection provided expert testimony on our state’s water issues to the Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality, I knew the administration meant business. They offered thorough, scientific information and laid out the comprehensive programs available across all three agencies — and they answered our questions, a far cry from the old DNR.
I’m confident in the new state leadership who have made clean water a priority from day one. We have a clear path forward: pass the governor’s budget that provides needed investments in clean water. Cleaning up our contaminated groundwater and surface water can be costly, but it’s far more costly to do nothing — to the public health, to property values, to tourism and recreation, and to the environment.
That’s why I was disappointed that some of my colleagues, like Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, said lead pipe replacement was a local issue, “rather than people from Marinette funding lead replacements in Milwaukee.” Marinette has significant PFAS contamination, just as Madison does. In southwestern Wisconsin, 42 percent of wells tested above the health standard, just as we do in the Central Sands region.
"Divide and conquer" is old and tired, and this situation is far too urgent to play politics. We owe it to everyone in the state to prioritize their drinking water. If my colleagues are serious about wanting to avoid spending taxpayer money on cleaning up our contaminated water in the future, I have an earnest suggestion — let’s work together to pass preventative solutions to keep our water clean in the first place.
While our challenges may be different across the state, we all deserve access to clean drinking water, from Mauston to Racine and from Superior to Milwaukee. Let’s celebrate National Drinking Water Week by committing to research, remediation and prevention. Don’t forget to call your legislator and ask them to support the clean water investments in the budget.
Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, represents Portage County in the Wisconsin Assembly and serves as vice-chair of the Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality.