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Water Quality Task Force makes recommendations with a $10M price tag
Todd Novak in LAX
REPRESENTATIVE TODD NOVAK is shown here chairing the Water Quality Task Force meeting held in LaCrosse last summer. After holding 13 other meetings across the state, the task force has released its recommendations.

WISCONSIN - On Wednesday, Jan. 8, members of the Speaker’s Water Quality Task Force (WQTF) gathered in the State Capitol to announce the recommendations they were making to help protect Wisconsin’s water. The recommendations came out of a process involving 14 hearings all around the state over the spring and summer, concluding in September.

Based on the level of participation at those meetings, and the extent to which water quality was in the news in 2019, it seems Wisconsin is thirsty for meaningful change in the state’s approach to protecting water quality. While the proposed measures allow a sip of progress, many think that the measures and budgeted amounts will still leave the state parched for meaningful change.

Overall, what is proposed is a package of initiatives that come with a $10 mil-lion price tag. The initiatives span the gamut from assistance to farmers to implement conservation practices to mapping, testing and educating around Wisconsin’s groundwater assets to full funding for county conservation staffing.

“Water quality is a Wisconsin issue – not a Republican or Democrat issue,” Water Quality Task Force Chairman Representative Todd Novak said. “Our task force learned more about water than we ever imagined possible, travelling over 2,000 miles to attend 14 hearings around the state.”

Novak stated that one of the key things the task force had learned is that Wisconsin’s geology is variable, and therefore, so too must the approach to protecting water quality be variable. He noted that the problems that the state is currently experiencing have been “decades in the making,” and they will take time to fix.

Task Force Vice Chair Representative Kristina Shankland pointed out that Assembly Speaker Robin Vos had initiated the WQTF at the same time that Governor Tony Evers had declared 2019 to be the ‘Year of Clean Water.’

“Out of the task force’s recommendations will come bills that enjoy bipartisan support,” Shankland said. “But what we need everyone to understand is that these recommendations are the beginning, not the end.”

Shankland specifically mentioned the need to go beyond the $10 million appropriation proposed in the package of bills and seek a more permanent source of funding for water quality initiatives in the state. She specifically mentioned the example the State of Minnesota legislature, which in 2008, passed the Water and Land Legacy Act, dedicating three-eights of one percent of the Minnesota sales tax (or four cents of every $10) to resource conservation projects. This has resulted in about $250 million per year, with 33 percent of the money going to clean water projects, and the rest to outdoor heritage, parks, and arts/cultural heritage projects.

Representative Novak explained that there will be a total of 13 bills introduced in the legislature. Those bills will put the task force’s recommendation in front of the state legislature for approval.

Two of the recommendations would fund new staff within the Geological and Natural History Survey, and involve creation of an ‘Office of Water Policy,’ and provide funding for groundwater mapping, testing and education.

“All of these recommendations will have to be approved by the legislature before they will actually take effect,” State Geologist Ken Bradbury said. “I was a little surprised by the first of the two, but I know that our office will be able to accomplish more in mapping, testing and education around groundwater quality if funding for another hydrogeologist position is approved.”

Bradbury said that state funding would be leveraged through matching funding from counties and other grant funding that might be available, should the recommendation be passed by the legislature.

Response to proposals

Various conservation organizations, and county conservation staff, have weighed in on the proposals. Some of the proposals are enjoying support, some are being opposed, and some seem to have received little attention.

Crawford County

Crawford County Conservationist Dave Troester expressed support for the bill calling for full funding of county conservation staff. As the county is also about to launch into a joint well water study with Vernon and Richland counties, the bill calling for funding for counties to test well water also enjoys his support.

“I think, in particular, our county would really benefit from the bill calling to extend the Wisconsin Fund for another two years,” Troester said. “Funding to replace failing septic systems is a significant need in our county, and we have seen a steady increase in applications in the last few years.”

Troester also expressed support for funding to help residents replace contaminated wells.

Conservation advocates

Midwest Environmental Advocates released a press release expressing appreciation for the Task Force’s hard work. They were also, however, quick to point out that the recommendations fail to address issues such as greater regulation and oversight of CAFOs, replacement of lead service lines, and state standards for PFAs.

Wisconsin Conservation Voters has come out in support of four of the proposed bills, and in opposition to two. The group supports the funding for county conservation departments, assistance to farmers for conservation, prohibiting sale of toxic sealant products, and continuation of the Wisconsin Fund.

“They key thing for the task force to have focused on should have been the comments of the many members of the public that came to those hearings,” WCV’s Ryan Billingham said. “This package of bills does far too little to address the core problems in water quality in the state which are nitrate, lead and PFAs, and it does nothing about oversight and regulation of CAFOs.”

The bills opposed by the group include changes in the scientific process for review of potentially toxic substances in water, and the use of biomanipulation technology versus addressing the root causes of water pollution.

“Wisconsin Conservation Voters considers it a dangerous move to change the scientific review of potentially toxic substances in water to allow polluters to have a voice in the process,” WCV’s Ryan Billingham said. “The process currently co-managed by the Department of Health Services and DNR is meant to safeguard the scientific rigor of the process.”

Bills proposed

Groundwater Testing, Mapping, and Educational Outreach (LRB 4716): 

• The UW System Center for Watershed Science and Education to expand outreach to private well owners and develop a private well water quality database.

• Creation of a UW–Madison Extension hydrogeologist position to develop county and local groundwater resource information.

• $200,000 to research Extension market-based phosphorous recovery and reuse policy.

• Creation of a DNR county grant program for private well testing or notify well owners and the public of testing results. The bill draft directs DNR to administer a grant program to provide two types of grants to counties: (1) grants of up to $10,000 for countywide groundwater testing of private wells to assess groundwater quality, and to determine the extent and type of any contamination, and studying geologic characteristics and well construction practices in the county, including depth to bedrock and well age, to determine any correlation between water quality, geology, and well construction; and (2) for counties that have already completed such a study, grants of up to $2,500 to notify the public of the study results and notify affected well owners. DNR must seek to make a grant to every county that applies. A county may receive only one of the types of grants under the bill draft. To be eligible, a county must: (1) provide matching funds equal to the amount  of the  grant; and (2) submit  the results of its testing  to  the Center  for Watershed Science and Education, without providing personally identifiable information.

Full Funding for County Conservation Staff (LRB 3915):Requires that counties maintain conservation staffing at present levels to receive DATCP conservation staffing grants.

Assistance to Farmers for Conservation (LRB 4717): Creates:

• A Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection managed grazing initiative coordinator position, which would create a stakeholder working group to create a state grazing plan.

• A Certification of Water Stewardship grant program.

• $5-per-acre rebates from crop insurance premiums for cover crop planting.

• Expands the DATCP watershed protection grant program to adjacent watersheds.

• Expands the DNR lake protection grant program to farmer-led groups.

• Requires the DATCP to consider “externalities” including weather in judging whether a county met its commitment to soil and water conservation when DATCP makes county grants.

Wisconsin Fund for Septic Systems (LRB 4304):Delays the end of the Department of Safety and Professional Services failing private septic tank grant program from 2021 to 2023.

Well Compensation Grant Program Revisions Addressing Nitrate Contamination (LRB 5062):Changes the DNR well compensation grant program to require prioritizing grants for wells with high nitrate contamination and remediation “most effective for the health and welfare” of the grant applicant.

Pilot Program to Address Nitrate Contamination (LRB 4751):Creates a DATCP pilot grant program for farmers to reduce nitrate loading.

Freshwater Collaborative (LRB 5061):Create a UW System fresh water collaborative to study water quality management and water quality safety, including creating an undergraduate water-centric training program.

Prohibition on Sale or Use of Coal Tar-Based and PAH Sealant Products(LRB 3651): prohibits the sale of coal tar-based sealant products and high PAH sealant products beginning January 1, 2021, and prohibits the use of such products beginning July 1, 2021, unless DNR grants an exemption.

Office of Water Policy (LRB 4931):Creates a UW System Office of Water Policy to “manage, conserve, protect, and enhance the productivity of the state’s water resources for domestic, municipal, commercial, agricultural, industrial, recreational, and other public and private uses.”

Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) (LRB 4489):Expands the DATCP/DNR Clean Sweep program to include firefighting foams that contain perfluoroalkyl or polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

Wetlands and Floodplain Restoration (LRB 4984):Expands criteria, including requiring cost-effectiveness measures, of DNR municipal flood control grants.

Biomanipulation Projects(LRB 4360):Requires the DNR to provide grants to local water improvement groups to conduct projects using ‘biomanipulation’ to improve lake and impoundment water quality.

Public Comment Period for Establishing Groundwater Standards (LRB 4806):Requires the Department of Natural Resources to publicly list the substances in groundwater the DNR compiles and measures, with a 21-day comment period when substances are proposed to be added to the list.