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Evers touts budget, cheers jump-ropers during stop in La Crosse

Gov. Tony Evers pledged during a stop Friday in La Crosse that his $83.5 billion state budget proposal would revitalize our schools, refine our drinking water and smooth over our bumpy roads.

But first, he watched some kids jump rope.

Students at Southern Bluffs Elementary School welcomed the governor with a trick-filled jump rope routine, their cheeks turning red as they hopped.

Their coach, equally red-faced, shouted out all sorts of cryptic instructions: “Around the world!” “Triangle group!” “Egg-beater!”

At one point, a few students managed to jump rope while sitting down. Another, whose feet hardly seemed to touch the ground, jumped two ropes at once.

“I’m out of breath,” Evers told the group after they finished. “Are you?”

In the school library, meeting with reporters, the governor shifted his attention to a different round of double Dutch, the one unfolding in Madison.

Evers touted his budget proposal, released on Thursday, as a particularly good one for the state’s public schools. It includes additional funding for impoverished and rural school districts, and for a University of Wisconsin System whose bottom line has suffered through years of frozen tuition.

“I’m looking forward to having more resources for our schools, so they can achieve at the highest level possible,” Evers said, noting that the current school funding model has passed the buck to local taxpayers.

“Over the last eight years, schools have been passing referenda like crazy, with millions and millions being raised locally,” he said. “The state needs to step up to the plate and do more.”

Evers said he hopes to fund cleaner drinking water by helping local governments reduce pollution and replace lead pipes.

He also vowed to fix the state’s crumbling roads, in part through an 8-cent-per-gallon gas tax.

State Republicans, however, have been skeptical or flatly dismissive of the governor’s proposal.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said the plan asks for “way more than Wisconsin can afford,” while Sen. Albert Darling, of River Hills, compared it to going “back to the future, back to spending and taxes.”

Evers struck a more hopeful chord on Friday, saying that, while he is prepared to veto a potential counter by the GOP, the two sides have much to agree on.

“Republicans don’t want bad schools, bad roads and bad health care,” he said. “There’s a lot of room for negotiation.”

“Republicans don’t want bad schools, bad roads and bad health care. There’s a lot of room for negotiation.” Gov. Tony Evers

Census challenged to reach urban millennials

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Census Bureau has a problem that some parents of millennials will recognize: These adults often don’t call. They don’t write. If you want to reach them, you have to use social media.

The 2010 way — mailing a paper form with a follow-up knock on the door or call to a landline — just won’t work for many of the residents the bureau needs to find. State and local governments are helping the agency work to avoid undercounts that sap funding and political power.

“Mail? I feel like that’s a dead thing,” said Tim Slayton, 36, a Washington, D.C., resident for 18 years. “And I don’t have a lot of people randomly knocking at my front door, so I would be a little weirded out. ‘Census Bureau!’ It sounds like a joke. It sounds like you just want me to open my door. So I probably wouldn’t.”

The Census Bureau is learning some lessons long known to those trying to reach young people, said Ben Varquez, managing director of Youth Marketing Connection, which conducts marketing campaigns for businesses and nonprofits in Boston and Washington.

“Not even our nonprofits and associations are relying on direct mail or phone calls, when it comes to millennials and Gen Z,” Varquez said. “U.S. mail is inconvenient and archaic. And it’s tough to get people to get on their phone browser or laptop to fill out online forms, when you’re prompting them with a piece of mail. It’s just too many steps.”

Millennials, generally those born between 1981 and 1996, and Gen Z, those born afterward, make up an estimated 35 percent of the U.S. adult population. States that undercount them risk losing everything from seats in Congress to billions of dollars in federal funding. The trick is to find them and get them to respond.

Eleanor Janhunen, a 25-year-old who manages a jewelry store in the gentrifying NoMa neighborhood of Washington, D.C., agreed that a postcard leading to an online form would be too complicated.

“Asking young people to do an extra step is always going to be harder,” she said.

Today’s millennials are more likely to rent and live in expensive urban areas than previous generations, according to an Urban Institute study in 2018.

The bureau is aware that young urban renters are less likely than they were in 2010 to communicate by mail, by phone or with strangers at the door. So it’s developing social media and other internet publicity that will allow potential respondents to log in and fill out a form next year.

“You’re able to go in and be a part of the census, without getting what we’re sending,” said Deborah Stempowski, the bureau’s chief of census management, speaking at a December meeting of the Census Scientific Advisory Committee in California. “You can do it on the phone on the Metro. It fills that gap.”

A member of the committee, 32-year-old Jessica McKellar, expressed skepticism that the bureau could find her any other way.

“I don’t check my physical mail. I just don’t. I also don’t answer my phone, and I live in an apartment complex. Nobody could get to my door if they tried to,” said McKellar, a tech startup founder in San Francisco, at the meeting.

Four out of five people ages 25-34 have no landline at home as of 2018, up from about a third in 2008, according to federal statistics. Almost 90 percent of people ages 18-29 use social media, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey (The Pew Charitable Trusts funds Stateline and the research center).

“Somebody like LeBron James could say, ‘It’s halftime! Pull out your phones, and let’s answer the census!’” said Burton Reist, communications chief for the census. “Anybody anywhere can do it right then, right there. It gives us a power we’ve never had before. It’s just huge.”

McKellar said her friends and family likely would respond to social media and celebrity endorsements. In Washington, millennials mentioned political heroes.

“If Obama was explaining it, or even Michelle (Obama), a lot of people would say, ‘OK,’” Slayton said. “They need to hear it from people they trust or like.”

Many areas deemed “hard to count” by the Census Bureau are poor or have large immigrant populations, the bureau said. But rental status and youth are bigger factors than income, so young people are the hardest to find, whether poor or relatively affluent, according to the census study.

Because they might be living with roommates, especially in high-cost areas, they may be reluctant to fill out forms asking for information about everybody in the household.

“There are six other people in my building with the same address. I know them, but I couldn’t answer the census for them,” said Emily Peeler, a 29-year-old attorney who moved from Kentucky to Washington five years ago.

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DNA evidence traces drinking water hazards back to farms and manure

A sophisticated new analysis of conditions around hundreds of polluted wells found that farming and animal manure pose far greater risks than other factors linked to two major drinking water contaminants that pose serious health hazards for many of the 800,000 Wisconsin households that rely on private wells.

The findings that were publicly released Wednesday offer significant new insight into the longstanding debate about the extent to which the state’s agriculture industry — as opposed to septic systems — are causing the stubborn problems of bacteria and nitrate in vulnerable drinking water sources.

The conclusions of the research led by U.S. Department of Agriculture microbiologist Mark Borchardt are bound to stir controversy because they raise questions about the adequacy of state regulations designed to protect water from the hundreds of millions of gallons of dairy manure stored in lagoons and spread on the ground.

The findings also raise questions about the wisdom of Gov. Tony Evers proposal to spend more money helping homeowners rebuilding wells as a solution to polluted drinking water.

Borchardt was describing his findings in a talk at the annual Midwest Manure Summit at Lambeau Field in Green Bay.

In an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal before the conference, Borchardt said the study examined hundreds of polluted Kewaunee County wells, and its conclusions are applicable in eastern Wisconsin and parts of the Midwest with Silurian dolomite, a porous bedrock formation.

For each well, Borchardt’s research team analyzed factors such as distance from farm fields, manure storage sites and septic fields, along with data on well construction, and the depth to bedrock and groundwater.

Borchardt said he was surprised to see that the highest risk for coliform bacteria was not how near a well was to farm land, but specifically the well’s proximity to a manure storage site.

“That was an analytical bombshell,” Borchardt said. “I was thinking there would be other things that would be more important.”

Coliform signals the possible presence of other bacteria, viruses and parasites that cause flu-like symptoms that can be mild to severe to life-threatening. Nitrate is linked to potentially deadly methemoglobinemia, or blue-baby syndrome, as wells as adult thyroid disease, diabetes and cancer.

Either can come from human waste or animal manure, so there has been controversy about how to prevent them from getting into drinking water. The new study found the strongest statistical links were between coliform and manure storage, and between nitrate farmland.

Farming interests have fended off proposals for tighter regulation of agricultural pollution by raising the possibility that residential septic systems were a significant cause of water pollution.

Shelly Mayer, executive director of the Juneau-based Professional Dairy Producers, said Borchardt gave the group’s board of directors a preview of his findings, and she came away feeling that much more study was needed to determine the causes of water pollution before steps are taken to prevent it.

“There’s just so many questions,” Mayer said Wednesday. “Lets study, study, study, study. ... We don’t want to leap before we know. Sometimes when we start messing with systems we can make matters worse.”

Borchardt’s study found that certain microbes that come from human waste were more likely to taint water when a septic system was nearby. But septic systems were not closely associated with coliform or nitrate contamination.

For a household 150 feet from a manure storage site to reduce the risk of coliform contamination by 90 percent, it would need to move its well three miles away, Borchardt said.

The study’s analysis of nitrate pollution found that a well drawing water in the vicinity of 40 acres of farmland faced five times the risk of a well with no farming nearby.

In recent years amid complaints about water quality, the state Legislature has offered money for well reconstruction to help families with polluted water, and Evers has said he planned to expand the effort in the budget he was releasing Thursday. Farming interests have suggested that some drinking water contamination could be remedied by better well construction.

But wells constructed to draw from deeper groundwater weren’t linked to lower likelihood of contamination, Borchardt said.

“You can’t construct yourself out of contamination,” Borchardt said. “I don’t even think people could afford to go as deep as you’d have to go.”

Built on DNA from microbes

The research was built on his previous studies using DNA markers to determine specifics about the types of microbes in tainted wells. Some pathogens come from farm animals, while others from humans. Still others can originate from either source.

Borchardt said the new study was the first time a highly rigorous risk assessment has been applied to multiple potential causes and types of water pollution.

“The models are sophisticated in that they account for the effects of multiple risk factors at the same time, Borchardt sai

The study analyzed wells in Kewaunee County, but provides important new information on how drinking water in other areas with porous bedrock poses serious public health hazards because it can easily be contaminated by pathogens and nitrate from the surface, Borchardt said.

The findings come on the heels of another study Borchardt was involved in that found 42 percent of wells in three southwest Wisconsin counties were contaminated. However, because of differing soil conditions, the newer study’s findings aren’t directly applicable to that area, but a risk assessment is planned, Borchardt said.

Under federal standards that have been adopted by Wisconsin, manure storage lagoons don’t need to be lined with impermeable material, and some leakage is legal.

But the risk from lagoons might not be all about leakage, Borchardt said. Stored manure is spread on fields in the spring before crops emerge. It’s expensive to truck the animal waste long distances, so the risk factor could be an indication of heavy land spreading near the storage sites.

“If you really wanted to know about leakage you could put in groundwater monitoring wells,” Borchardt said.

Agricultural interests have opposed monitoring. A few years ago, citizens demanded monitoring be included in the permit of a large dairy feedlot, but the state resisted and eventually the case went to court. The state Supreme Court plans to decide the case.

The findings raise questions about the wisdom of the governor’s plan to spend more money helping homeowners rebuilding wells as a solution.