By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
LaCrosse Water Quality Task Force hearing discusses need for funding
Novak at LAX WQTF
STATE REPRESENTATIVE TODD NOVAK (R-Dodgeville) is the Chair-man of the State of Wis-consin Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality. He was on-hand to hear feedback about water quality issues from residents in Southwest Wisconsin.

SOUTHWEST WISCONSIN - Two hearings of the Wisconsin State Assemby Speaker’s Water Quality Task Force were held recently in  Mauston and LaCrosse. 

Last week, the first of our two-part story about the hearings was published. In that story, we discussed testimony regarding nitrate pollution and nutrient management. This is the second installment.

Phosphorous pollution

Problems with phosphorous pollution of surface waters was a very big topic at the Mauston hearing, and was discussed in LaCrosse as well.

Duke Welter of Trout Unlimited Driftless Area Restoration Effort (TUDARE) was the first to address the phosphorous problem in Mauston.
Welter at Mauston WQTF
DUKE WELTER from Trout Unlimited Driftless Area Restoration Effort provides feedback to the task force about streambank restoration efforts and the im-portance of surface and ground water quality. Welter was previously a member of the State of Wisconsin Natural Resources Board.

“I urge you to pass Wisconsin Senate Bill 91 that calls to set up phosphorous trading,” Welter said. “We have to help municipalities make decisions and save money, and the state is going to have to help either with water treatment upgrades or watershed restoration efforts upstream.”

Jim Umhoefer from the Wisconsin Cheesemakers Association addressed his industry’s efforts to prevent phosphorous and other pollution from reaching the surface waters.

“The waste from cheese plants comes in the form of spilled milk and curd particles and cleaners and sanitizers,” Umhoefer said. “The phosphorous reduction and water quality trading programs are working, and the multi-discharger variance allowing for offsets through upstream watershed projects is working.”

Umhoefer explained that his industry is also working with the DNR to recycle the brines from cheesemaking into road salt brines.

Perhaps the most egregious example of phosphorous pollution presented at the hearing came in Mauston when members of the Petenwell and Castle Rock Stewards (PACRS) talked about the problem with blue green algae. The unpleasant and toxic growth  has clogged their lakes, and negatively impacted quality of life and tourism.

“The algae smells like paint, and it is so thick on the surface, it almost looks like you could stand on it,” PACRS spokeman Rick Georgeson told the task force. “I’ve talked to hotel owners who say customers will check in for one day, and then pack up and leave because they can’t swim in the water and they can’t take the smell. And the owners of marinas used to have more customers than slips, and now they can barely get half their slips rented.”

Georgeson talked about the farmer-landowner outreach program his group had initiated. “We have to take the farmer to the lake, and take the lake to the farm,” Georgeson explained. The group’s activities have resulted in the formation of three watershed councils, and the group also sponsored a presentation by retired USDA NRCS soil scientist Ray Archuleta.

John Enrusi from the Town of Rome in Adams County, a retiree to the area, spoke about the problems.

“Our local economy relates to the lakes, and three of our four lakes are on the impaired waters list,” Enrusi said. “I am also concerned about nitrates – we have mostly row crop farmers in our watershed.”

Sauk County Conservation Manager Melissa Keenan talked about the Total Daily Maximum Load (TDML) project that the EPA and DNR had implemented for the Wisconsin River Watershed.

“The Baraboo River is the second greatest contributor of phosphorous to the Wisconsin River,” Keenan said. “Reversing this will be a long-term project, and it requires county funding as state and federal matching funds.”

Juneau County Conservationist Dustin Ladd noted that Juneau County is the third largest contributor of phosphorous to the Wisconsin River.

At the LaCrosse hearing, Andrew Aelsen with the Wisconsin Rural Water Association (WRWA) spoke to the task force. His group is a federal non-profit organization that assists 610 municipal well owners, 1,343 community well owners and 750 wastewater system owners with water system issues.

Aelsen pointed out that the kind of groundwater contamination issues that affect private wells affect municipal wells as well, and the municipalities are requird to treat the water so that it is safe to drink. He said that the cost of drilling a new municipal well, $1.5 million, is cost-prohibitive for most smaller municipalities. These municipalities find themselves paying to treat problems, like phosphorous, that they didn’t cause.

“The idea of setting up a phosphorous trading clearinghouse is a good one,” Aelsen said. “But what is crucial is to get at the source of the non-point pollution.”

Aelsen advocated for holding non-municipal sources of groundwater contamination responsible – both legally and fiscally.

“It is a tough problem we face because agriculture is such an important part of our economy,” Aelsen said. “But it is not fair to put the burden of dealing with the pollution on the small municipalities.”

Water quantity

Duke Welter spoke rather sternly to the task force about the need to clarify the DNR’s authority over permitting of groundwater.

“The State of Wisconsin Public Trust Doctrine is a more than sufficient underpinning for DNR regulation of water, and not just an Attorney General’s opinion,” Welter said. “I urge you to pass a law reflecting the Lake Beulah decision which says that cumulative impacts may be taken into account in permitting decisions for high capacity wells.”

Paul Putzier, Minnesota Hydrogeologist Supervisor, discussed the differences in the high capacity well permitting process in Minnesota versus the process in Wisconsin.

“The volume threshold before a permit is needed is much higher in Wisconsin,” Putzier said. “Keeping the threshold lower allows our state to plan our future water useage. We now have a system where row crop farmers work with each other when someone wants to drill a new well, and make recommendations to the DNR – it is a stakeholder-led process, and the DNR uses the hydrogeological maps that we have drawn to help make a decision.”

LaCrosse County Board Supervisor, and member of the Nitrate Task Force, Jim Giese, pointed out at the LaCrosse hearing that recent studies have shown that high capacity wells cause surface water to sink into the aquifer when large withdrawals are made. This, in turn, can cause the surface water to carry contaminants down into the groundwater.

Money, money, money

Certainly at both the Mauston and LaCrosse hearings, as well as the first hearing in Lancaster, the constant refrain is the need for funding for water testing, county conservation staff, and CAFO and NR 151 rule enforcement.

Five county conservationists testified in front of the task force at the two hearings – Sauk, Juneau, LaCrosse, Vernon and Crawford – all five were unanimous in asking for Land Conservation Departments to be fully funded. This is something that has not happened in over ten years.

According to Melissa Keenan, Sauk County Conservationist, her department is the best-funded and best-staffed of the five departments. Nevertheless, she too said that in order to achieve the needed conservation work in the county, she needs more staff, and more cost share dollars.

Vernon County Conservatonist Ben Wojahn testified in LaCrosse.

“We love our farmers, but our farmers need help. We love our water, but our water needs help. We love our tourism, but our resources need help,” Wojahn told the task force. “My department has a lot of work to do, we’ve been getting 500-year floods, manure spills, and heavy rains, and the funding level for county conservation departments is inadequate.

Wojahn said that county conservation departments are really good at leveraging funds into more funding. We need money for groundwater testing, and our county has initiated a joint study project with Crawford and Richland counties, the Driftless Area Water Study (DAWS) that we are hoping the state will help us fund.

“We exist at the intersection of farmers, tourism and water quality,” Wojahn said.

Crawford County Conservationist David Troester agreed with Wojahn – “our department is understaffed, and we’ve got flooding and a farm crisis to deal with.”
Troester at WQTF LAX
DAVID TROESTER, Craw-ford County Conservationist, testifies at the LaCrosse hearing of the Water Quality Task Force about the need for more funding for county land and water conservation efforts.

“Our geology makes our groundwater vulnerable, and our topography increases the chances of runoff,” Troester said. “With just four employees, we can’t get it all done.”

Troester urged the committee to support the DAWS study, and in addition made three other recommendations:

1. The Private Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems (POWTS) grant program, to help citizens replace failing septic systems, is needed;

2. We need assistance with helping residents to replace contaminated wells;

3.  We need an increase in Land Conservation Department staffing and in cost share dollars.

Forest Jahnke of the Crawford Stewardship Project, and Shelly Brenneman of the Valley Stewardship Network, both spoke in support of funding for the DAWS study. Both described the work they have been involved in in their communities, and urged the task force members to call for increased funding for county conservation departments, DNR scientists, and CAFO enforcement.

Wisconsin State Representative Kristina Shankland spoke to the issue at the Mauston hearing.

“The funding approved for Land and Water grants is currently at $10 million, which is not even enough to fund 100 percent of the first position, and 70 percent of the second position,” Shankland said. “If we increase the amount to $12.4 million, we can fund the first and second position, and if we increase it to $15 million, we can also fund 50 percent of a third position.”

She asked the Sauk and Juneau county conservationists what they would do if they were granted additional staff. The Sauk County Conservationist said that her department would use the staff hours to reach more farms and to work on watershed projects. The Juneau County Conservationist said that his department would use the staff to perform more farm visits.

Chris Zindorf of the Juneau County Board was quite critical of the recent decisions by the Joint Finance Committee of the Wisconsin State Legislature.

“We need you to increase funding to county conservation departments, increase funding to the DNR for CAFO and high capacity well enforcement, fund well replacement, and none of that looks like it will happen in the next budget.”

Bruce Nimek from the Town of Saratoga in Wood County shared his thoughts with the task force.

 “The JFC and the Water Quality Task Force do not appear to be on the same page. You’ve eliminated funding to replace contaminated wells, for replacement of lead service lines, delayed an increase on CAFO permit fees to fund additional DNR enforcement staff, and reduced the funding for cleanup of contamination in the Great Lakes. Meanwhile, you’re busy coming up with some kind of middle class tax cut. The people of Wisconsin want clean water, not a tax cut.”

Two Minnesota state employees were invited to testify in front of the task force. Those two were Dr. Tony Runkel, Chief Geologist at the Minnesota Geological Survey, and Paul Putzier, Minnesota Hydrogeologist Supervisor.

MN Guys at LAX
MINNESOTA WATER QUALITY EXPERTS, Dr. Tony Runkel, Chief Geologist at the Minnesota Geological Survey, and Paul Putzier, Minnesota Hydro-geologist Supervisor, were invited by the task force to discuss their state’s approach to water quality. The two spoke about how conservation is funded, and development of County Geological Maps.

Runkel discussed the project Minnesota had undertaken to make a County Geologic Atlas for Water Resource Management. The project had first mapped the geology of the state, and then filled it in with information about the locations of the groundwater aquifers within the geologic formations. The resource is intended to be used by the DNR and county conservation departments in making land use and water resource management decisions.

The citizens of Minnesota voted to amend their state constitution in 1988 to create the ‘Environmental Trust Fund.’ This change earmarked 40 percent of the net Minnesota Lottery sales to fund the initiative, and has resulted in approximately $60 million annually that funds 60 projects per year. It funded about 65 percent of the cost of creating the groundwater atlas. 

In 2008, the Minnesota legislature also passed the Water and Land Legacy Act, which dedicated three-eights of one percent of the Minnesota sales tax (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.

Progress on water quality projects was accelerated when Minnesota’s Governor declared 2016 the ‘Year of Water Action.’

In addition, it was pointed out that Minnesota’s governor had just signed a new fertilizer application restriction law, which prohibits producers from spreading fertilizers in the autumn.

State Representative Shankland pointed out that the amendment to the state constitution had occurred during a time of an economic downturn. The measure was passed by more than 60 percent of state voters.

To read part one of this story, go to:

To read the story about the hearing in Lancaster, go to: