Governor, Legislature Take Two Approaches to Water Quality

Governor Tony Evers is trying to follow through on his claim that 2019 will be the Year of Clean Drinking Water through a series of initiatives and appropriations to improve water quality. Meanwhile, the Republican-led state legislature is attacking the issue through creating a Water Quality Task Force. The two branches of government do not appear to be coordinating their efforts.

The renewed focus on water quality is partly due to a change in administration – water was a pillar in Evers’ campaign platform – but a study finding that 42 percent of private wells in southwestern Wisconsin contained hazardous levels of pollution spurred further concern. Southwestern Wisconsin has a karst topography (shallow soils and fractured bedrock) similar to that of Door and Kewaunee counties, but it has the added problem of steep hills that further contribute to run-off and erosion.

Last week, Evers called for $70 million in bonding to address water quality. The funds would primarily be doled out as grants to local governments to reduce water pollution and replace lead pipes. Approximately $5 million would be reserved for infrastructure on farms to improve water quality and implement best management practices. An additional $300,000 would fund studies on water-pollution management and the implementation of last year’s NR 151 rules on the management of water on the karst topography of Lake Michigan’s shoreline.

Evers announced separately that his budget will increase funding of the DNR’s Well Compensation Program – which homeowners use to replace or remediate contaminated private wells – by $1.6 million.

The legislature’s bipartisan Water Quality Task Force is charged with gathering information and making policy recommendations about broadly improving water quality in Wisconsin. In a statement, Rep. Todd Novak, chair of the task force, said the group will focus on “identifying the best practices for soil mapping and data collection, determining the sources of contaminants, assessing run-off management, investigating remedies that will protect a healthy and stable supply of water, and best practices for designing and constructing wells and septic systems.”

Rep. Joel Kitchens is a member of the task force. He said the group has not yet refined its goals.

“I have some concerns about the task force because clean water is such a broad topic that we’re going to need to narrow it down,” Kitchens said.

Beneath the umbrella of the task force, Kitchens plans to work on legislation addressing nitrate contamination, which has been a problem for groundwater statewide.

Meanwhile, some consider Evers’ call to fund clean-water initiatives to be premature, arguing that policy should be coming out of the task force instead of the governor’s office. Although Kitchens supports the goal of improving water quality, he does have some concerns about funding Evers’ proposals.

“It’s hard to not support, theoretically, all these things, but it’s a huge price tag on this, too, and it remains to be seen how much we can afford,” Kitchens said. “We need to balance the checkbook at the end of the day.”

Kitchens was particularly skeptical of bonding as a fiscal tool to pay for these initiatives. He said bonding is usually reserved for projects such as roads that have a life at least as long as the debt payments, and it should not be used on short-term expenses.

The first public-input meeting of the Water Quality Task Force will likely be in Kewaunee County in the coming months. Evers is expected to release his budget proposal outlining the additional water-quality spending on Feb. 28. It’s unclear whether the state legislature will support Evers’ spending initiatives or which ones it will cut.