Legislative task force proposes water quality initiatives

By: Riley Vetterkind, Wisconsin State Journal 


A bipartisan group of Wisconsin lawmakers on Wednesday proposed a $10 million package of more than a dozen initiatives to improve water quality across the state.

Legislators on the 16-member Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality touted proposals that, among other things, would promote conservation, research and programming to help improve Wisconsin’s water quality.

 Just before the Legislature released its report, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ administration released its own report highlighting its efforts over the past year to promote water quality and recommendations going forward.

In a statement, Evers said he appreciated the efforts of the task force and that some of his own agencies’ recommendations were included.

The Legislature’s proposed initiatives include increasing the number of county conservation staffers, creating an office of water policy, increasing aid to study water quality issues, helping farmers learn about water conservation and increasing funding for grant programs to replace contaminated wells.

The bills also would help the state collect or dispose of certain firefighting foams that contain PFAS, a group of contaminants found in a variety of industrial products that can cause adverse human health effects. Sometimes called “forever chemicals,” PFAS don’t break down naturally and can accumulate in the body.

Studies have shown two of the compounds, PFOA and PFOS, may increase people’s risk of cancer and affect cholesterol levels, childhood behavior, the immune system and the ability to get pregnant.

 The bills would prioritize addressing nitrate contamination of private wells, often caused by manure, by providing an additional $1 million for grants to replace or treat contaminated wells and making it easier to receive a grant. The package would also address nitrate contamination by providing another $1 million to give up to $50,000 grants to farmers to promote agriculture practices that optimize the use of nitrogen or reduce its use.

The bill would also fund a position in the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection to expand the use of grazing rotations among different fields to maximize production and reduce sediment runoff.

Recent momentum


Water quality has increasingly become an important statewide issue. In October, a number of environmental and social justice groups called on lawmakers to pass a bill that would require the Department of Natural Resources to establish and enforce standards for PFAS.

Earlier this year, the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board authorized the DNR to move forward on a 30-month process of establishing water quality standards for PFAS and the Department of Health Services recommended a combined groundwater enforcement standard of 20 parts per trillion for two compounds, PFOA and PFOS.

The task force bills don’t propose other ways to address PFAS contamination beyond helping dispose of certain firefighting foams. The chairs of the water quality task force, Rep. Todd Novak, R-Dodgeville; and Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, stressed the bills represent the beginning of the Legislature’s work on water-quality issues.


Evers’ report

The Evers administration’s report highlighted its efforts addressing water contamination by nitrates, PFAS and lead.

Evers declared 2019 the “Year of Clean Drinking Water” to prioritize addressing water contamination. Over the past year, the DNR began a process of creating enforceable PFAS standards, reducing nitrate contamination, studying water quality in southwestern Wisconsin and educating state residents about the dangers of lead poisoning, among other initiatives.

The administration in 2019 provided a number of recommendations. For nitrate contamination, the DNR recommends stricter groundwater monitoring at all agricultural sites, increasing fees and oversight of industrial farms. To address PFAS contamination, it wants to further evaluate the impact of PFAS on the environment, find ways to reduce the prevalence of PFAS compounds and continue to educate the public.

To address lead contamination, the DNR says it is also working to implement a new program to help replace private lead service lines, increase the number of available plumbers and better determine the water supply’s contribution to child cases of lead poisoning.