A proposed legislative council study on the groundwater contamination in northeast Wisconsin has made it past the first few cuts and may put state-level power behind finding solutions. The proposal from Representative Joel Kitchens is among nearly 100 ideas for interim study by the state Legislative Council. If selected, legislators and local citizens will study the topic to create legislation that can be sponsored by the Joint Legislative Council.
“[Legislative Council] only pick a few so these are taken very seriously,” said Kitchens. “Because the session is over and they don’t have as much to do, then they take something on, it’s given a lot of weight in the legislature. The intention going into these things is that legislation is going to be written.”
“Joel and I do not agree on a number of topics across the board, without a doubt,” said Bill Schuster, Door County Soil and Water Conservation Department Head. “But no one has given this the amount of time and effort on this sort of topic ever before.”
The proposal explains challenges to groundwater protection in the karst topography of northeast Wisconsin and seeks best management practices for agriculture and livestock moving forward.
“Current standards are primarily designed to protect surface water and do not adequately protect the groundwater of this region,” said the proposal, which specifies contamination due to livestock waste. “It is hoped that the approach used in this study and the resulting plan to protect the groundwater of the karst region of Northeast Wisconsin, will be transferable to other regions of our state.”
The narrow geography of the issue is uncommon in these legislative studies. Typically, studies have statewide significance and the legislation that comes out of them is applicable to the entire state. That was the goal of the Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association (WLWCA) until Kitchens took the process under his wing.
“They needed somebody to jump on board to take it over,” said Ken Fisher, chair of the county Land Conservation Committee at their March 17 meeting. “Kitchens volunteered but changed the scope to be, instead of statewide, to Door County and Kewaunee County.”
“Yeah, I feel a little guilty about that,” said Schuster, whose county conservation department is under the umbrella of the WLWCA. “They like this, but they are disappointed they didn’t get what they wanted.”
But Schuster explained in an interview after the meeting that the WLWCA does support the initiative, hoping that it will lay the groundwork for a legislative process other areas in the state can use.
“If we can make this one work, this is a transferable methodology to pick up on. It is difficult and probably not correct to try to do some of these things on a statewide basis,” said Schuster. What farmers, conservationists and legislators decide is the best practice on karst geography does not apply to the Driftless Sands region or the central plains.
The proposal lists state representatives, citizens and organizations that Kitchens feels would serve the committee well. The list includes county conservationists in Door, Kewaunee, Brown and Manitowoc counties, farmers, representatives from the Department of Natural Resources and county board members.
Schuster thinks this kind of attention will hold more weight than simply proposing a piece of legislation or hoping people follow voluntary recommendations, which he feels are ineffective in Kewaunee County.
“One of the criticisms that has been heard is there’s this concept of the process that’s happening in Kewaunee County where, the idea is, they come up with voluntary recommendations and everyone will just do the voluntary recommendations for groundwater,” said Schuster. “Simply, volunteer process doesn’t work and there needs to be a regulatory component of that because not everybody will volunteer to do that.”
“This group would have a whole lot more authority,” said Kitchens in response to the Kewaunee County workgroups. “Those workgroups have been good and they’re just getting ready to push the implementation of those best practices but I think this will really build on that.”
Kitchens expects to hear soon whether his proposal has been selected along with around eight others.