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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Bipartisan Task Force Proposes Legislation To Improve Water Quality In Wisconsin

Susan Bence
The Speaker's Task Force on Water Quality hopes its recommendations create policies that encourage farmers to help conserve and protect surface and groundwater in Wisconsin.

It has become nearly impossible to move protective environmental policy through the Wisconsin Legislature. But a bipartisan collection of state legislators believe they’ve come up with ways to tackle some of the state's water quality issues.

On Wednesday, the task force released its recommendations, which include a combination of solutions, research, and new technology.

The task force was brought together almost a year ago by state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. Members traveled throughout Wisconsin, making 14 stops along the way, to learn about local water quality issues.

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

“We’ve done our best to create a comprehensive package of bills that not only addresses various types of contamination — from nitrates to PFAS and bacteria — but which also include preventative measures, research, education, and some forward-looking solutions,” says state Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-LaCrosse, and co-chair of the task force.

Task force chair state Rep. Todd Novak, R-Dodgeville, says that after hours of deliberation, the group compromised and crafted 13 pieces of legislation.

“The recommendations that we are announcing today represent a $10 million investment in water quality. The package lays the foundation for clean water policy development and innovation through additional investment in programs that we heard are working, along with some ideas to compliment those that are tried and true,” Novak says.

READ: Marinette Residents Want To Get PFAS Chemicals Under Control

The idea is to reduce water contamination and to ramp up research and innovation. Novak says that includes finding ways to draw more farmers into water conservation.

“This is an area where the task force saw an opportunity to be innovative. We are proposing a new initiative that provides support for farmers who wish to compete in a water stewardship certification program,” Novak says.

A dairy farm in Marathon County recently became the first in North America to attain certification. A new grant program proposed by the task force would help other farms meet water stewardship standards. Measures that, Novak says, would improve water quality.

The task force also proposes allocating $2 million to springboard a UW System-wide freshwater collaborative. UW-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences would take the lead.

“Our investment will build capacity for new undergraduate degree tracks, expand opportunities for collaborating research and attract talent to an established, integrated higher education program serving the freshwater economy,” Novak says.

Co-chair Shankland says Wisconsin needs to help people facing contaminated private wells.

“We want to invest in outreach to private well owners, research and mapping of private well water quality through the Center for Watershed Science and Education at UW-SP (Stevens Point), which we heard about at nearly every hearing," Shankland says.

READ: Kewaunee County Residents Fed Up Living With Contaminated Wells

The task force’s bundle of bills now faces the scrutiny of the Wisconsin Legislature.

Novak says Speaker Robin Vos supports the final package. Novak also thinks Evers could be an ally.

“Shankland and I met for about an hour yesterday with Gov. Evers and his policy team. The governor can speak for himself, but we/I felt very good when we left the meeting,” Novak says.

Evers released his own water quality report on Wednesday.

As for the task force proposals, a spokesperson from Evers’ office says, “Our office and the agencies will work with the authors on any amendments that are needed.”

Editor's note: A portion of this story's audio is courtesy of WisconsinEye.

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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