August 28, 2018

Advancing Water Quality in Wisconsin

Wisconsin is blessed with some of the nation’s most abundant, accessible and pristine lakes, rivers, streams and groundwater resources. With 15,000 lakes, more than 1,000 miles of Great Lakes shoreline, 84,000 miles of rivers and several major aquifers, water is part of Wisconsin’s identity and has been since well before our statehood.

As our knowledge of the water around us evolves, so must our actions to improve and preserve Wisconsin’s waterways. As August is Water Quality Month, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the positive changes the State Legislature made this session to help ensure clean water for generations to come. This includes bills I’ve authored to remove lead water pipes from our communities (2017 Act 137), provide $4.5 million to complete critical health and safety water infrastructure upgrades in our most popular State Parks (Act 71), triple the funding to farmer-led soil and water conservation projects (Act 196), and help homeowners remediate or replace contaminated wells and failing septic tanks (Act 69).

These changes have only enhanced new laws I’ve authored with my Republican colleague’s support in past legislative sessions, including bills to keep plastic microbeads out of waterways by banning their use in beauty and hygiene products (2015 Act 43), combat the spread of the invasive and destructive sea lamprey from the Great Lakes and their tributaries (2013 Act 72), incentivize businesses to work together to combat nonpoint source phosphorus pollution (2013 Act 378 and 2015 Act 205), and properly assign property liability and a ensure prompt and thorough remediation of lake and river-bed contamination (2015 Act 204).

But legislative changes haven’t been Wisconsin’s only avenue to improve and preserve water quality. Over the past two years, the Department of Natural Resources has distributed $26 million to 42 communities to help remove lead water pipes. While the future of this federally-funded program is uncertain, the Leading on Lead Act (2017 Act 137) will help continue community’s efforts to remove this aging and harmful water infrastructure.

I have also recently requested a follow-up from a 2016 audit (Report 16-6) of Wisconsin’s water pollution control mechanism. In this audit which I advocated for, the issue of backlogs in inspections, permitting, and enforcement of the Wastewater Pollution Discharge Elimination System emerged. Not only could this create uncertainty for businesses and local governments, but it could potentially impact water quality. The DNR has made progress in addressing the backlog, but as Co-Chair of the Audit Committee, I believe in long-term follow-ups to ensure that the program is operating appropriately.

Additionally, the DNR has recently revised administrative rule NR 151 for over a dozen eastern Wisconsin counties where Silurian bedrock, also known as Karst, is present. With fractured bedrock, contaminants have a more direct conduit to aquifers, and agricultural standards that successfully protect water quality elsewhere were failing in Northeast Wisconsin. The revised rule ensures that areas with the shallowest soils and venerable bedrock have reasonable restrictions that allow contaminants to be properly filtered before reaching groundwater.

Of course, work on improving and maintaining water quality is never over. While the Legislature is adjourned, I’m working with a few of my colleagues from Northeast Wisconsin to address the issue of PFOA and PFOS chemicals used in the production of heat, oil and grease resistant materials contaminating groundwater near Marinette and Baraboo. As no enforceable water quality standards exist at the federal level for these chemicals, we’ve encouraged the DNR to set state standards. We’ve also pushed for the release of a federal study that will provide our state agencies with the best information as they work on setting these new health-based standards.

Not only do Wisconsin residents and visitors rely on clean and safe ground and surface water for their health and safety, but the natural scenery and recreation we enjoy from our pristine waterways enhances our standard of living and sustains our tourism industry. While the Legislature has made progress, improving and preserving water quality is an ongoing priority for myself and the entire Legislature. I’m proud to work with my colleagues and the experts in our state agencies to provide everyone in Wisconsin with even more drinkable, fishable, and swimmable water.

Robert Cowles (R-Green Bay) is the State Senator for Wisconsin’s 2nd Senate District, covering portions of Brown, Outagamie, Shawano and Waupaca counties.


Column Published in The Press (in the Greater Green Bay area) and the Wisconsin State Journal