Clean water is essential. We need clean, safe water for people, our animals, our crops and our way of life. This issue is one of the central concerns of your state government, right now. I have been asked “What are you doing about water?” by a number of different people and organizations and I wanted to share my efforts and answers with you.
Right around the new year, preliminary data from the Southwest Wisconsin Groundwater and Geology Study told us that 42 percent of 301 private wells in Iowa, Grant and Lafayette counties exceeded standards for bacteria or nitrates. Prior to this revelation, citizens in Juneau County were alerted that a large number of private wells near Armenia were also testing extremely high for nitrates.
I recently met with Lynda Schweikert, Grant County land conservationist, and Katherine Abbott, Iowa County land conservationist, to discuss the SWIGG study. They provided an overview of current results and discussed the next phase and what they hope to learn.
I also attended a Lafayette Ag Stewardship Alliance meeting and met with Ken Bradbury, director and state geologist, Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, UW–Extension, and Joel Stokdyk, biologist, Laboratory for Infectious Disease and the Environment, US Geological Survey. They also presented the preliminary results of the SWIGG and plans for the next phase.
Schweikert, Abbot, Bradbury and Stokdyk all said that the second phase of this study is key. It will provide us with the data we need to determine the real causes and potential solutions to water quality issues in our communities. They will be doing DNA testing on the pollutants to determine where they are coming from. We do not know if the bacteria or nitrates are coming from farms, septic systems, faulty well casings or other sources. We simply do not know the answer to this question … yet. The second phase of the study is designed to help us answer this question.
Once we know where the pollutants are coming from, we can work together to address the problems. According to the scientists, it is too soon to place blame.
This doesn’t mean we aren’t working on water quality initiatives. There are several programs, policies and organizations that I have led and supported to address the water quality issues we already know exist. In fact, several of these programs are already making significant impacts in our communities.
Even before the SWIGG study began, I was the co-author of 2017 Act 196 that added $500,000 to the producer-led Watershed Protection Grant program so that the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection could distribute up to $750,000 to water quality projects in both years of the last biennium. Groups like LASA, Pecatonica Pride, Farmers for the Sugar River, the Trout Creek-Mill Creek Watershed Group, the Tainter Creek Farmer-Led Watershed Council and the Uplands Watershed Group have received approximately $138,250 to do watershed protection programs in the 17th Senate District. In fact, 19 percent of all grant funds in this program have come to our communities since 2014! I will be promoting investment in the program again in the next budget.
I also led the effort to fully fund the Wisconsin Fund grant program because Grant county is one of the largest users of this fund. The Wisconsin Fund provides grants for private on-site wastewater teatment sstem maintenance and repair. Providing these grants helps low-income families stay in their homes and protects groundwater by helping them to replace and maintain failing septic systems. In the last budget, I moved to maintain funding for POWTS grants for $840,000 each year of biennium, totaling $1.6 million. I will also promote investment and continuation of this program in the next budget.
I have already co-sponsored several bills this session that take on existing, known water quality challenges. One of these bills, authored by Senator Rob Cowles, R-Green Bay, and Senator Jerry Petrowski, R-Marathon, creates a water quality credit marketplace.
This is a good bill because it will create stronger financial incentives for unregulated, non-point sources (farmers) to do projects that improve water quality. It will then create a way for highly-regulated, point sources (municipal wastewater treatment plants) to purchase these credits from the farmers as a part of water quality permit requirements. There is only so much a wastewater treatment plant can do, and they need this type of real-world partnership to truly impact water quality without creating an extreme financial burden on our communities. This bill will address real water quality issues with real opportunities for actual results. This is just one bill, of several, we are working on to improve water quality statewide.
I recently co-sponsored a nitrate testing pilot program that proposes to create a $10 million grant program for recipients to apply for up to $2,500 per household to pay for testing of private wells and install filtration systems or pay for repairs. The grants, under this bill, would be administered by the Department of Health Services so that the grants fulfill the public health concern posed by nitrate contamination.
I am also co-sponsoring Senate Bill 31, which will require that all water pollutant discharge elimination system permit fees collected from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations must be deposited into the Department of Natural Resources account for environmental quality and be used for management of state water resources. I believe that these fees should be dedicated to addressing the issues for which the permits are designed and support our efforts to study and correct water quality crises.
Looking ahead, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos created a Water Quality Task Force and appointed Rep. Todd Novak, R-Dodgeville, as the chairman. He also appointed Representative Travis Tranel, R-Cuba City, and Rep. Tony Kurtz, R-Wonewoc, to the task force. I am thrilled that all three members of the Assembly from the 17th Senate District are taking leadership roles on this issue. We will take recommendations from this task force and move additional programs and projects forward.
The bottom-line: we all want clean water. We want clean water for our families, our children and our grandchildren. Farmers want clean water for their animals and their crops. As a state, we want clean water for our quality of life in general. We all have the same goal.