Water-Quality Package Faces Uncertainty in Legislature


Task-force recommendations come with $10 million price tag

The Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality has released a package of 13 bill proposals to tackle a broad range of water issues across the state, and it adds up to $10 million in additional spending. Although the Assembly appears poised to move the proposals through, the Senate has not signaled broad support.

Rep. Joel Kitchens and Sen. André Jacque were both members of the task force, which held hearings in 13 Wisconsin communities in 2019.

The proposal package, with its associated costs, includes:

• Creating the Office of Water Policy and funding for one director of the office ($150,000)

• Increased funding for county conservation staff ($2,960,000)

• Increased funding for the well-compensation program, which helps to reconstruct or remediate private well contamination ($1,000,000)

• Requiring a more robust public comment period for developing groundwater standards

• Developing a nitrate-contamination pilot program for agricultural producers to adopt practices that will reduce nitrogen contamination ($1,000,000)

• Increased funding for farmer-led conservation projects, including managed grazing, Alliance for Water Stewardship program certification, cover-crop insurance rebates, the producer-led watershed grant program, and the soil and water resource conservation grant allocation ($850,000)

• Creating a hydrogeologist position, support for the Center for Watershed Science and Education, and a grant program to support well testing ($1,500,000)

• Requiring the UW board of regents to fund a freshwater collaborative or an interdisciplinary undergraduate program focused on water issues ($2,000,000)

• Expanding the “clean sweep” program to include collecting certain firefighting foams aimed at reducing polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) ($250,000)

• Modifying the application procedure for municipal flood-control grants

• Delaying the sunset for the Wisconsin Fund for Septic Systems, which provides funding to remediate failing septic systems, until June 30, 2023

• Requiring the DNR to provide grants to local water-improvement groups to conduct projects using biomanipulation ($150,000)

• Prohibiting the sale of coal tar-based sealant products and high-PAH sealant products

Rep. Kitchens is a co-author of the bill related to the nitrate pilot program.

“There’s so much that’s not known on nitrates, and we need to do some of this work,” Kitchens said. Nitrates have been a particular problem in the central-sands region, where commercial fertilizer containing nitrates can easily move through the soil into the groundwater.

Kitchens is also a co-author on the bill banning coal-tar sealants in the state. Coal-tar sealants are typically used on driveways and parking lots to protect the underlying asphalt. The sealants contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are carcinogenic and can runoff into stormwater ponds and waterways.

“A lot of communities are doing that already,” Kitchens said, citing the Milwaukee area. “AMA [American Medical Association] has asked for it to be banned, especially for people working with it all the time. Their cancer risk is 38 times as high” as for other people.

Sen. Jacque co-authored bills creating the Office of Water Policy, the continuation of the septic-system program and the modifications to public-comment procedures to develop groundwater standards. Jacque serves on the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Legislative Caucus Nutrient Management Task Force, which includes the eight Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces that are parties to the Great Lakes Compact. He said many of the initiatives proposed in this package mirror goals across the Great Lakes states.

“A lot of these fit into the discussions I’ve been having with colleagues from those seven other states and Canadian provinces,” Jacque said. “One of the components within the Office of Water Policy deals with providing a point of contact for blue accounting through the Great Lakes Commission.”

Blue accounting is a data project to help measure the effectiveness of efforts to reduce nutrient loading and bolster the economy of the Great Lakes Basin region.

Jacque and Kitchens also signaled strong support for county conservationist funding, which now functions as an unfunded state mandate. The state requires a certain level of staffing at the county conservation offices but fails to provide funding to the counties for the position. This gap in state funding was an agenda item for the 2019 Door/Kewaunee Legislative Days.

“What we see is when we have a good conservation department, that just makes a huge difference,” Kitchens said. “Door is the most fragile area of the state, and the reason our problems have not been worse is because we’ve had an aggressive department.”

Bills Will Challenge Fiscal Conservatives in Senate

Kitchens said the bills likely won’t have a problem moving through the Assembly. The budget that was passed in 2019 reserved $10 million that was intended to fund the proposals that came out of the task force. But with other state priorities and limited dollars, it’s unclear whether that $10 million will go toward its original purpose or be pared down through the legislative process.

“I think the Senate is always uncertain,” Kitchens said. “It just takes a few senators who are fiscally conservative who just don’t want to spend the money.”

Republicans maintain a 63-36 majority in the Assembly, so the majority can afford to lose a few Republican votes and still move its initiatives through. But the Republican majority in the Senate is only 19-14, so it takes just a few opposing senators to hold up proposals.

“There’s going to be questions of prioritization in terms of the price tag for this initiative and other things the Assembly has passed,” Jacque said. “In the Senate we’re a little more deliberative, and we have to have additional conversations to develop consensus around bills.”

Not a single senator was present at the press conference when the task force unveiled the package of bills. As of Pulse press time, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald had not commented on the proposals. 

“There is an interest to get things done,” Jacque said of Fitzgerald. “I think there’s a strong chance we’ll get a number of substantial things accomplished.”

The proposals cross geographic and political boundaries. Issues such as PFAS, nitrates and septic-system failure have challenged urban and rural districts represented by both Democrats and Republicans. 

Kitchens said that fact helped the task force remain bipartisan. 

“It’s one of the very few task forces where it has remained bipartisan throughout,” Kitchens said. “So many times we get to the end, and it becomes partisan, and it’s our fault also because we have not given [Democrats] enough credit for what goes into it.”

Some environmental groups in the state say the proposals do not go far enough.

“While we will continue to evaluate each of the proposals, it is already clear the legislation does not address some of the key issues raised by the public at the task-force hearings,” said Tony Wilkin Gibart, executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates, in a statement. “There are no new proposals for dealing with existing PFAS contamination, no new funding for lead lateral replacement and no additional resources for CAFO oversight and enforcement.”

However, Clean Wisconsin applauded the ban on coal-tar sealants. Other conservation groups are still wading through the 13 proposals before offering their take.

The bills began circulating for co-sponsorship Jan. 8.