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With Milwaukee's proximity to Lake Michigan and world-class water research, why don't we have clean water?

Wisconsin's Water Quality: People Share Concerns & Propose Solutions At Racine Hearing

Susan Bence
The Speaker's Task Force on Water Quality listened to invited comments before the public had its chance to speak Thursday night.

A group of Wisconsin legislators spent more than five hours Thursday listening to experts, advocates and residents who gathered in Racine. The topic was water quality and how to improve it.

Water quality has become a buzz phrase in Wisconsin. During his first state of the state report, Gov. Tony Evers declared 2019 "the year of clean drinking water." Weeks earlier Assembly Speaker Robin Vos began setting up a task force to determine the key sources of water contamination and ways to remedy them.

READ: Scientist Hopes Study Helps Solve Kewaunee County Well Contamination Challenge

Credit Speaker's Task Force on Water Quality
The locations where the Water Quality Task Force is expected to convene.

The Speaker's Task Force on Water Quality has been traveling Wisconsin to gather input. The latest was Thursday in Racine where extra chairs had to be hauled into the cramped meeting room.

Milwaukee resident Terry Wiggins traveled construction-strewn Interstate 94 to share her top water quality concern: “That we have a moral responsibility to improve the quality of the water coming through our pipes in Milwaukee,” Wiggins said.

She’s talking about tens of thousands of old lead pipes that deliver drinking water into Milwaukee households. Wiggins says she knows replacing those pipes will mean a lot of time and money.

"Basically what it comes down to is: would you wanna be drinking water that’s full of lead and would you want your children to have it?” Wiggins said.

READ: What Milwaukee's Lead Problem Means For Children

It would be hours before Wiggins had her moment to share her thoughts with the task force.

First came the invited testimony, starting with Val Klump. He's the dean of UW-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences.

Klump's proposing a freshwater collaborative. The institute would pool water science and technology expertise across the University of Wisconsin system and focus on what Klump called 10 grand water challenges, from agriculture to urban infrastructure.

Klump says part of Wisconsin’s water quality solutions is to train and retain the next generation of talent to carry out the work.

“The two driving principals are one: to create a unique, one of kind system-wide network of undergraduate training programs; and secondly: to spur new research to solve Wisconsin’s problems ... [and the] world’s problems because what we do here in Wisconsin we can export our expertise across the planet and certainly across the United States,” Klump said.

READ: Great Lakes, Troubled Waters

State Sen. Mark Miller pressed Klump, saying the task force can’t wait for solutions. 

“Your proposal is how we build the research infrastructure to be able to make decisions in the future. But we need help now," he says. "If the leadership of the Legislature and this committee were to invite you to identify those experts in the areas of policy, not just research and science, would you be able to identify those folks ... to approach the issues we’re dealing with today?” Miller said.

Klump answered with a resounding yet nuanced yes.

"Unfortunately, we’re not gonna solve some of these problems overnight. These are decades in the making. ... But we need to be in the position where we get out of the restoration business and eventually get into the place where we are just protecting the system. We’re not dealing with the legacy of the past,” Klump added, “The only way we can do that is to science our way out of this.”

Credit Susan Bence
Town of Waterford farmer Tom Greil (standing) waits his turn to speak at Thursday's public hearing on water quality.

Tom Greil wants to be part of the solution. After nearly 50 years of farming in rural Racine County, Greil says his take on tilling the land drastically changed when he attended a watershed protection workshop in nearby Dodge County.

READ: Oconomowoc Boasts Wisconsin's First Watershed Protection Program

“To get a healthy soil you have to keep it covered with residue. You have to have roots growing as many days of the year as it can. You have to cut down on the tillage and disturbances. You have to grow diverse cover crops and allow the soil biology to be able to flourish,” Greil says.

Greil says the practice helps keep soil and the nutrients in it in place and out of surface and groundwater motivated him to help sate a watershed protection committee in Racine County. “We’re hoping as this thing builds everybody will not only agree with it but find ways to implement it,” Greil says.

He wanted the Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality to know state department of agriculture funding fuels water conservation conversations among farmers. He’s hoping legislators will find ways to bring more people to the table.

Task force chair Rep. Todd Novak says with each public hearing he’s realizing no two areas of the state or their water quality challenges are the same.

The group has completed half of its scheduled public hearings; dates have not yet been announced for Green Bay, Marinette, Menomonie, Stevens Point and Superior. Comments can also be submitted to waterquality@legis.wisconsin.gov.

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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