Capitol Update

by Senator Howard Marklein

May 12, 2023

Good News for Work on Water Quality

Governor Tony Evers recently signed Act 5 to expand eligibility for the Producer-Led Watershed Protection grant program administered by the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP). This is good news because it is a very successful program and expanding eligibility will create more opportunities to apply best practices around the state. The goal of this program is to improve Wisconsin's soil and water quality by supporting and advancing producer-led solutions that increase on-the-ground practices and farmer participation in local watershed efforts.
Prior to Act 5, DATCP was required to provide grants for nonpoint source pollution abatement with assistance from producer-led groups. Producer-led groups must have included at least five agricultural producers, and they must have worked with land conservation groups to qualify for the grants. They all had to be in the same watershed.
Act 5 makes two changes to expand the program. It removes a current restriction of only being eligible for state funding through DATCP, by allowing these groups to seek additional state assistance and qualify for the Department of Natural Resource’s (DNR’s) competitive Surface Water Grant Programs. Collectively, these DNR programs are funded at about $2.5 Million annually. Second, Act 5 clarifies that these groups may exist in multiple adjacent watersheds, which allows farmers near a new or existing group to join-in and make these positive changes extend even further regardless of whether they are beyond the watershed border.
Senator Rob Cowles (R-Green Bay), the author of the bill, said that as of 2021, Wisconsin is home to 34 producer-led groups with 807 farmer members and 526,000 acres of participating cropland. Since this DATCP grant program began in 2016, the number of groups has continued to grow annually. Despite increased funding provided by the Legislature to DATCP for this grant program, including the awarding of $1 million in the most recent annual grant cycle, we’ve been unable to meet all of the requests for funding in nearly every grant cycle to date.
Act 5 provides needed flexibility in the process of establishing the ‘founding five’ members to create a group and allows these groups to receive additional state grant funding from an existing program. These two simple changes will generate more forward-thinking, voluntary work from coalitions of farmers big and small which will leave a lasting impact on soil health and water quality throughout the state without adding any new funding or creating new regulatory burdens. 
The 17th Senate District has taken full advantage of the Producer-Led Watershed Protection grant program with great results.  In 2022, six projects were funded with $164,200. This was 16% of the total grant funding awarded statewide.  In 2023, seven projects are funded with $180,962. This is 18% of the total grant funding awarded this year.  We have active groups working in Green, Iowa, Juneau, Lafayette, Richland and Sauk counties!
I was recently talking to a farm family that lives in a watershed where a producer-led group has been hard at work on this issue for a couple of years. The family told me that when they moved into their house two decades ago, they couldn’t drink or cook with the water. However, a recent round of follow-up testing has changed all of that!  Due to the hard work of a producer-led group in their community, their water is now safe to drink! This is exactly why we think this program is so important.
Act 5 is good news for water quality efforts in Wisconsin.  I am very proud to support programs like this with funding and legislation that improves how we do things in our state. Our efforts are always evolving and Act 5 is just one more step to expand the good work – and positive results – of the Producer-Led Watershed Protection grant program.
Please do not hesitate to connect with me to provide input, ideas or to seek assistance.  Send an email to sen.marklein@legis.wisconsin.gov or call 608-266-0703. I want to hear from you.