Water Quality Task Force releases final report on policy recommendations

By: Isiah Holmes, Wisconsin Examiner 

A final report released by the state’s Water Quality Task Force was described as an “unprecedented, bipartisan effort for clean water in Wisconsin,” by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. The report outlines a package of bills and provides a variety of recommendations for the state’s water policy.

One recommendation is the creation of an Office of Water Policy, staffed by a single full-time employee. The office will “coordinate efforts to manage, conserve, protect, and enhance the productivity of the state’s water resources,” according to the report. A director, appointed by the governor, will oversee its activities from evaluating water-related legislation to acting as a liaison to the Great Lakes Commission’s Blue Accounting initiative.

Public hearings held throughout 2019 helped build the task force’s sense of the different water needs in communities including Marinette, Janesville, Madison, Tomahawk, Milwaukee and Superior.

“The proposals we are recommending today are the product of a year-long process of information gathering, bipartisan collaboration, and compromise, and are a long-overdue step in the right direction,” said Rep. Katrina Shankland (D- Stevens Point), vice chair of the task force. “These bills will make a real and lasting difference for the public health and for our economy, from agriculture to tourism to our workforce and talent attraction, but the conversation certainly doesn’t stop here.” The report shows funding will be targeted in the 2020-21 fiscal year at specific water resource issues.

For example, $2,960,900 will be used to for county land and water conservation staff. Changes were also made to grant programs offering compensation to land owners for nitrate-contaminated wells. The report recommends that restrictions to compensation be removed, and that funding for well compensation grants increase by $1 million.

The DNR is advised to prioritize grants for wells with nitrate levels in excess of 40 ppm (parts per million). Another $200,000 may also be allocated by the DNR for a grant program treating wells with levels between 10 and 25 ppm, “unless DNR determines there are insufficient claims at that level to do so,” the report states.

A recommended pilot program would foster collaboration with universities to address nitrate contamination. Although nitrates are naturally occurring, higher levels have been linked to various health effects in humans. Runoff from agricultural land, which has been treated by nitrate-rich fertilizers, can exacerbate the hazard.

“It’s clear we can’t just throw money at these issues, thinking they’ll immediately go away,” says Vos. “Wisconsin needs a long-term strategy to protect, preserve and promote clean water.” Some of the bills call for the development of health-based groundwater standards by the DNR and Department of Health (DHS). It recommends that public notice is given by the DNR before a substance is categorized based on what level has been detected in water. A public comment period would also be held, spanning at least 21 days and with all comments retained by the DNR.

The bill package also honed efforts to contain PFAS (per- and polyfluroalkyl substances) chemicals, including adding certain kinds of firefighting foam to the “clean sweep” program. Jointly, the DNR and DATCP (Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection) are advised to establish a program to contain, store, and dispose of PFAS- containing firefighting foam. Protecting and restoring threatened wetlands was also a recurring theme during the task force’s conversations with Wisconsinites.

“While there is no one silver bullet that will solve all of our state’s water quality issues at once,” says Rep. Todd Novak (R-Dodgeville), “we are pleased to recommend a strong bipartisan package of legislation that addresses many of the top concerns that we heard about at our hearings around the state.” Novak praised the $10 million state-level investment into water quality issues in the Badger State.

The bill package, however, didn’t quite address everything. A list of the 15 most frequently mentioned recommendations made to the task force can be found on page 35 of the 36-page report. Many of the items are addressed in some way by the bill drafts, while others remain pending and controversial. Among those unresolved issues: taking action on the Back Forty mine and re-establishing the “Prove It First” laws which limited sulfide mine activity in Wisconsin. Increasing funding for lead lateral removals also made the list, which became a sore point in Milwaukee  over the last year.

“Wisconsin’s hydrological landscape is varied and diverse, and so is our approach with this legislation,” said Novak. “We are investing in both proven and new programs that range from helping farmers with best practices and funding the boots on the ground in our county conservation departments to investing in research and mapping and forward-looking solutions that will grow our water workforce, all while ensuring we are being good stewards of taxpayer dollars and striving for effective and lasting change.”