Sunlight sparkles in a spray of water as titmice take turns splashing in the bird bath at the edge of the flower garden. I watch from the window above my desk just a few feet away. One of the perky birds with the stylish crest flutters to a rung on the garden bench, shakes vigorously and flies off, refreshed, no doubt, by a morning bath in clean water.

Like the titmouse, we are all grateful for clean water, I muse as I reach for my copy of Wisconsin Trout, which has a long editorial on the subject of clean water for Wisconsin.

Written by Todd Ambs, the editorial questions the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources decision to eliminate the Water Division and disperse its functions among other units including one titled Business Support and External Services Division.

I returned to the editorial after seeing a report over the weekend by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism citing its year-long study of Wisconsin water safety:

“Hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin’s 5.8 million residents are at risk of consuming drinking water tainted with substances including lead, nitrate, disease-causing bacteria and viruses, naturally occurring heavy metals and other contaminants,” the report says.

“The problem persists, and in some areas is worsening, because of flawed agricultural practices, development patterns that damage water quality, geologic deposits of harmful chemicals, porous karst and sand landscapes, lack of regulation of the private wells serving an estimated 1.7 million people, and breakdowns in state and federal systems intended to safeguard water quality.”

You can see the report and its suggestions on safeguarding your drinking water at wisconsinwatch.org.

The report adds to concerns expressed by Ambs and others, such as the 16 Wisconsin residents who petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to revoke Wisconsin’s authority to issue pollution discharge permits under the Clean Water Act if the DNR does not correct deficiencies in its enforcement.

The DNR says it is working to correct them. But Kimberlee Wright, executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates, the law firm representing the petitioners, said Wisconsin lacks an adequate regulatory program to protect water, including what flows from residents’ taps.” She was quoted by Ron Seely, the reporter who did the investigation.

Bob Clarke, president of the Friends of the Central Sands, points out that his group has been fighting for years to get DNR to uphold the Public Trust Doctrine protecting Wisconsin’s waters and to use authority to more strictly regulate water use and waste discharge by concentrated animal feeding organizations (CAFOs). FOCS has raised alarms about declining water tables and pollution of groundwater in the sands area.

The petitioners to EPA have pointed out that the DNR’s authority and staff have been whittled away, citing the loss of 600 positions in the past 20 years.

Ambs, who was the DNR Water Division administrator from 2003-10, said that while the DNR’s reorganization of water regulation will not be more efficient or “integrated” as claimed, “the real issue here may well be the sheer lack of resources to do the job.”

And he has made some proposals that could help the state invest in protecting our precious water resources.

He cites the Minnesota sales tax increment that generates nearly $200 million a year for clean water, parks and wildlife. Why not here? he asks.

And, he adds with a note of dry irony, “if users are supposed to fully fund activities they desire, such as the recent decision to fund state parks only through fees, then we should look to raise other fees as well.”

He noted wastewater permits haven’t been raised since the 1990s and high-capacity well permits should be a candidate for higher fees as well.”Permit fees for CAFOs were last adjusted when we had a total of 40. We now have nearly 300 and have roughly the same number of staff to review and approve permits and make sure that these farms are operating in accordance with those permits.”

And I would add to his suggestions the notion that if the state’s waters are indeed a public trust, should industries be able to mine them at no cost?

As Ambs points out, the stakes are high and we should not be taking the safety and supply of this resource for granted.

We all need it – titmice, trout and every living soul.

Dave Skoloda is an award-winning journalist and former owner and editor of the Onalaska

Community Life and Holmen Courier.

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