PRAIRIE DU CHIEN - More than 50 people attended a Crawford County Democratic Party fundraiser at Huckleberry’s Family Restaurant in Prairie du Chien on Thursday, March 14, to listen to former DNR Secretary George Meyer talk about the environmental issues facing Wisconsin today.
Meyer explained that since retirement he has worked as the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, which is a 501C3 non-profit.
“Environmental issues, such as water quality, are non-partisan issues that are of critical importance to all Wisconsin residents,” Meyer said. “If the Crawford County Republican Party had invited me to speak, I would have been delighted to accept.”
Meyer, who grew up on a dairy farm near New Holstein, Wisconsin, worked at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for 32 years, and in 2017 was inducted into the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame. He started at the DNR as a law clerk in 1970 after graduating from law school.
Meyer reminisced about growing up on a farm along the banks of the Fox River, and remembered that in his childhood, the river was so polluted, no one went in it. He also said that there were no game fish available in the river at that time. Now the Fox River is much cleaner, and people can fish in it.
“We have made tremendous improvements since the 1970s,” Meyer said. “Municipalities have taken a strong role in cleaning up pollution, we have transitioned waste storage to landfills, and the Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts were passed in the 1970s. Those laws worked and we have seen major achievements, as witnessed by the resurgence in populations of eagles, falcons, wolves and trumpeter swans, and prairie restoration.”
Meyer went on to say that in recent years, some areas are regressing, such as surface and ground water quality.
“Urban and rural runoff is contributing to the problems we’re seeing,” Meyer said. “Phosphorous is increasingly becoming a problem in our surface waters, and we have dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and Green Bay from non-point-source runoff as well.
Meyer said that it is easier to clean up streams, but lakes are harder to clean up because you don’t have the same kind of flow. He said that if the groundwater becomes polluted, it will be difficult or almost impossible to clean up.
“In the towns of Holland and Onalaska in LaCrosse County, 30 percent of tested wells are above the 10 micrograms-per-liter (mcg/L) level for safe drinking,” Meyer said. “And in the Central Sands area near Stevens Point, 25 percent of wells tested in Portage County exceed the standards.”
Meyer also discussed the situation in Kewaunee County where 60 percent of private wells tested are contaminated with coliform bacteria and nitrates. This contamination has been documented through extensive studies to be tied to animal agriculture in the county. And he discussed the ongoing SWIGG Study in Grant, Iowa and Lafayette counties, where 42 percent of private wells tested showed coliform and nitrate contamination. Statewide 8.3 percent of wells tested show contamination.
“This issue of contaminated wells isn’t just an environmental or human health issue,” Meyer explained. “It is also an economic issue, because contaminated wells decrease property values.”
Meyer also discussed the fact that 240,000 homes in Wisconsin in urban areas are served with lead service lines.
“This means that homes in Wisconsin have higher levels of lead than Flint, Michigan,” Meyer said. “The Madison Water Utility solved the problem by paying to replace both the public and private lead service lines, but other municipalities in Wisconsin have yet to address the problem.”
Meyers applauded the $70 million proposed in Governor Tony Evers budget, and his declaration that 2019 will be the ‘Year of Clean Water’ in Wisconsin.
“What we need to keep in mind, though, is that fixing a rural resident’s well will not fix the problem,” Meyer said. “Citizens, especially farmers, don’t want regulation, but the program of voluntary participation in conservation land use has not worked.”
Meyer talked about Wisconsin State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’ Water Quality Task Force, and the public hearings that would begin this week.
“We have to require proper application of materials containing nitrates and phosphorous,” Meyer said. “And these efforts will require funding because the dairy industry is in crisis, and they won’t be able to pay for it.”
Meyer also discussed the problems of water quantity.
“In just 10 years, the number of high capacity wells in the state jumped from 200 to 5,000,” Meyer pointed out. “Sticking all these ‘straws’ into our aquifers is causing streams and lakes to dry up and reducing people’s property values.”
Meyer stated that water quantity issues are really a public rights issue.
Chronic wasting disease
Meyer indicated that the rapid spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in the state was another area where the state is regressing.
“In the last eight years, the DNRs approach to controlling the spread of CWD has focused on monitoring rather than eradication, with little strategy,” Meyer said. “We have seen CWD spread into 19 new counties in the last eight years, and in the same time frame, the DNR radically reduced enforcement, with only 28 percent as many hunting violations being prosecuted.”
Meyer said that what is needed is a “fair and level playing field in environmental law,” with fair and reasonable enforcement.
Meyer pointed out that Governor Walker’s administration had expunged all references to climate change from state websites and had forbidden DNR staff from discussing climate change. He said that this move had been instigated by a complaint in Wisconsin State Senator Tom Tiffany’s district that was blown up in the Lakeland Times newspaper in Minocqua. The editor of the paper didn’t believe in climate change, and the newspaper’s coverage moved Tiffany to demand that all reference to it be removed from state web sites, according to Meyer.
“The old folks like me won’t pay the price,” Meyer said. “It is our children and grandchildren that will pay that price.”
Meyer reported that the new DNR Secretary, Preston Cole, has said that the topic of climate change will be restored to the DNRs website.
“Despite all of this, there is reason for optimism,” Meyer said. “Industry and municipalities have taken the issue on. Especially corporations who do business in other countries have been required to be responsive to climate change, and we are at a tipping point for energy transformation with a projected 80 percent reduction of fossil fuel use by 2050.”
Meyer went on to say that the number of young people who are entering careers in conservation is another inspiring fact.
When asked what residents in Crawford County should do to move conservation agendas forward, Meyer responded that the most important thing is to put pressure on elected representatives to engage in groundwater testing.
“With the test results in Kewaunee County, and Grant, Iowa and Lafayette counties, we have a clear call to action in Wisconsin,” Meyer said. “We need to focus attention on using food stock crops for energy, and on the loss of wildlife habitat and buffer zones on cropland and near streams.”
Meyer also pointed to the problem of increasing consolidation in the dairy industry.
“We now have more milk being produced by fewer cows in Wisconsin,” Meyer said. “Operators are enduring low prices, so they try to pay their bills by expanding their operations. We need a national review of dairy farm policy, because the system is currently totally out of whack.”