Unpacking the Water Quality Task Force bills

Wisconsin State Capitol Dome
, By Carly Michiels

On January 8th, 2020, the Water Quality Task Force released their much-anticipated report containing a new package of bills and recommendations to address water quality issues in the state.

This comes roughly a year after drinking water pollution issues took the Capitol by storm. During his first State of the State Address last year, Gov. Tony Evers declared 2019 the Year of Clean Drinking Water, paving the way for a statewide discussion on water quality. In response to high rates of well water pollution in Southwest Wisconsin, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos formed the bipartisan Water Quality Task Force, consisting of 16 state representatives and senators. Through the spring and summer the task force held 14 hearings throughout the state to get input from Wisconsinites on the numerous water issues affecting our local communities.

After hearing from hundreds of Wisconsinites about water quality issues, including drinking water pollution from PFAS, lead pipes, and nitrate runoff from farm fields, the Task Force released their bill package spending just $10 million on water quality initiatives. These proposals are a small step forward and even includes things that may be contradictory and harmful for water quality. People are already drinking contaminated water, playing in polluted waterways, and do not have the resources or access to safe, clean water. We have a lot of work yet to do to address water quality in Wisconsin.

The $10 million dollars the Task Force is willing to put forward to address water quality, after an entire year of working on the issue, is just a drop in the bucket.

Some of the bills proposed by the Task Force that we were happy to see included and will have a positive impact on water quality. These bills include:

LRB-3915 increasing funding by $2,960,900 for county conservation staff, the boots on the ground that support farmers implementing sustainability practices. This is only one-time funding and brings the total just short of full funding for these statutorily required positions.

LRB-3651 prohibits the sale or use of coal tar-based and PAH driveway sealant products. Coal tar-based driveway sealants are extremely toxic and can lead to increased cancer rates and impact aquatic habitats from runoff. Over 20 Wisconsin communities have prioritized this issue and already have similar ordinances in place.

LRB-4717 provides about $850,000 in assistance to farmers for conservation. This money will include staff, resources for managed grazing, funding for the Alliance for Water Stewardship Program, creates a crop insurance program, and funding for producer-led watershed protection grants.

LRB 4751 creates a pilot program from nitrate contamination focusing on optimization. Most of the nitrates contaminating our groundwater are coming from agricultural sources, incentivizing optimal usage of nitrates is an important preventative initiative for protecting water quality.

Two proposals in the Task Force package were disappointing to see included as water quality initiatives. These could be detrimental to preserving the scientific integrity of our health-based statewide groundwater standards.

LRB-4806 allows special interests to undermine science used in setting health-based groundwater standards by opening up the research process to industry influence. The safety of public health from harmful pollutants depends on sound science and independent research. This proposal would, for the first time, require the Department of Health Services to solicit input from self-interested parties on how health standards are developed, undermining the integrity of the scientific review process. No special interests should be able to influence the independent research that has regulated harmful pollutants in Wisconsin’s groundwater for over 35 years.

LRB 4984 has little to do with water quality and is a legislative overreach by requiring DNR to consider the cost effectiveness of a project including any loss to the tax base when establishing criteria for the wetland and floodplain restoration grants. This further removes the systems in place that DNR currently uses to distribute these grants.

While the Task Force put in a lot of time, effort, and consideration into these recommendations in the spirit of bipartisan cooperation these recommendations do not come close to wholly addressing prevention or help people gain access to the clean, safe water they deserve.

In the face of similar water quality challenges, other states have stepped up in major ways. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently invested $416 million in grants for water infrastructure improvements to protect public health and improve water quality, $120 million specifically to help communities address the emerging contaminants PFOA and PFOS. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz is proposing the state invest $300 million to replace aging infrastructure and upgrade water treatment facilities across the state, with public health and the environment in mind. And in Ohio, with $172 million already invested this past budget, Gov. Mike DeWine unveiled H2Ohio, a comprehensive, data-driven water quality plan to reduce harmful algal blooms, improve wastewater infrastructure, and prevent lead contamination focusing on developing strategies for long-term, cost-effective, and permanent water quality solutions.

By comparison, the $10 million dollars the Task Force is willing to put forward to address water quality, after an entire year of working on the issue, is just a drop in the bucket.

So, what’s next? We need to support the good water quality initiatives in the Task Force recommendations and see these important items signed into law. Next, it is important to oppose the items that would be outright detrimental and harmful to clean water. Additionally, there needs to a continued prioritization of water quality and drinking water well past 2019.

This package was a small step toward clean water, but there is a lot of work that needs to still be done. The governor’s 2021-23 State Budget can reprioritize water quality and take a more comprehensive, meaningful stand on addressing some of these issues like New York, Michigan, or Ohio. As these bills make their way through the legislative process, we’ll be sure to keep you updated on their progress.

You can sign up to get regular email updates and alerts to contact your lawmakers and make your voice heard at www.cleanwisconsin.org/act.