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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

How Did Wisconsin's Environment Fare in 2019?

Susan Bence
Wisconsin's new climate change task force will try to tackle ways to cope with weather extremes, such as flooding.

Wisconsin is a state rich in natural beauty and resources. But 2019 underscored the stresses those resources face. WUWM outlines the top challenges, as well as signs of improvement, in this past year.

Gov. Evers' Agenda

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers promised to start his first term by bringing science back to the state’s diminished Department of Natural Resources.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker, whom Evers, defeated had dramatically reduced the agency’s size and scope.

Evers also pledged to zero in on safe drinking water. "We are announcing nearly $70,000 in bonding to addressing water quality – from replacing lead service lines to addressing water contamination all across the state," Evers said during his biennial state budget address.

READ: Safe Drinking Water Is Top Priority Of Evers' State Budget

While Evers’ plan to address a wide range of water concerns was shut down by the Republican-dominated legislature, GOP lawmakers did form a bipartisan water quality task force. It crisscrossed the state, making more than a dozen stops.

One person the task force heard from in Racine County was farmer Tom Greil. He told state leaders how some farmers have been reducing harmful runoff into rivers and streams by keeping soil in place.

"Accomplished by that ecosystem of the soil, the plants, the water and the air. And when you put it in simple terms and inform the producers how it will benefit them, we’re hoping as this thing builds, everybody will not only agree with it, but find ways to implement it," Greil said.

PFAS Chemicals

Credit Susan Bence
PFAS were detected in this stream that runs between Marinette's high school and sports fields.

Meanwhile in 2019, some local and federal officials turned their focus to one type of contaminant.

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, is part of a family of man-made chemical used in everything from Teflon coating to firefighting foam.

It’s been found in area soils, surface and groundwater and drinking water in Marinette, Wisconsin – located along the shores of Green Bay.

READ: Marinette Residents Want To Get PFAS Chemicals Under Control

Former Marinette mayor Doug Oitzinger calls the city the epicenter of PFAS contamination.

"They can build up. They can lead to cancer, thyroid issues, young children can have developmental issues. They can cause difficulty for women to even become pregnant," he told WUWM this summer.

Oitzinger says area residents want aggressive regulatory action and clean up.

The Wisconsin DNR created a multi-agency action council to hash out what it calls "the growing pubic health and environmental concerns regarding PFAS."

Bright Spots

There have been bright spots in Wisconsin’s environment this year.

The City of Milwaukee passed an ordinance meant to dramatically reduce the number of plastic straws handed out at local restaurants and other businesses selling drinks. Instead of automatically getting a plastic straw, customers will have to ask for them.

READ: Milwaukee Leaders Approves Limiting Plastic Straws

Just northwest of downtown, Lindsay Heights became the city’s first "eco neighborhood" thanks to its innovative use of renewable energy and green infrastructure. City leaders hope the model will rub off on other neighborhoods.

READ: You Can Tour Milwaukee's First Eco-Neighborhood: Lindsay Heights

And, steps were taken to give native and migrating birds winging through Milwaukee’s urban landscape a greater chance of survival near the city’s newest landmark. Fiserv Forum was named the world’s first bird-friendly arena, thanks to measures including specially treated glass and cast-down outdoor lighting.

READ: The World's Dangerous For Birds — Fiserv Forum Makes It A Little Safer

Climate Change Activism

Credit Susan Bence
Milwaukee School of Languages students rallied for climate action in 2019.

Environmental action in 2019 wasn’t just being spearheaded by business, political or neighborhood leaders; young people increasingly stepped up to bring change.

Throughout the year high school students staged walk outs to call attention to climate change, including Elijah Kraig, a senior at Milwaukee School of Languages.

READ: Milwaukee High School Students Join International Call For Climate Change Action

"I think that it’s important that youth have a voice in their own future and we don’t sit around and watch as we are robbed of our lives ... Having informed students who are concerned about themselves is really important," he said.

UW-Madison political science student Stephanie Salgado said young people are beginning to navigate the adult world to bring about climate action. "I’m not just seeking partisan solutions, but bipartisan, so we come up with a holistic solution to this whole problem,” she said.

Last week, Salgado sat shoulder to shoulder with business, utility and environmental leaders at the first meeting of Gov. Evers' task force on climate change — as a task force member.

READ: 'There's No More Later Left': Wisconsin Launches Climate Task Force

Dan Vimont, who directs the Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research and co-chairs the Wisconsin Initiative for Climate Change Impacts, addressed the group: "We can be planning right now for what’s going to be happening in the next 30 years or so. What we do now makes a huge difference for the future of our state and our world."

Vimont urged the task force to act inclusively and decisively.

We will follow the progress of Gov. Evers' climate change task force and Wisconsin's evolving environmental issues throughout the coming year.

Have an environmental question you'd like WUWM's Susan Bence to investigate? Submit below.


Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.
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