Water Quality Task Force Discusses Agriculture & Groundwater

The Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality met for the second time in Madison on April 3 to hear testimony from both farmers and conservation advocates on solutions to improve water quality in Wisconsin. The committee hopes to put forth bipartisan legislative recommendations on clean drinking water by this fall.

The first presenter, the Wisconsin Farm Bureau, emphasized the need to continue research and data collection for science-based regulations. The Farm Bureau hoped that future water quality programs would encourage farmers to participate, rather than create punitive costs for noncompliance. During their testimony, Rep. Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point) suggested removing the statewide preemption on local groundwater quality standards. While the Farm Bureau did not oppose local action related to water quality, they expressed it might be difficult for large farms to comply with inconsistent criteria among townships.

Next, Wisconsin Farmers Union presented some alternative proposals for how farmers could improve water quality. The Farmers Union’s proposed solutions included increased funding for groundwater mapping, private well compensation grants (Rep. Shankland’s AB 21), the restoration of Wisconsin’s previous grazing lands conservation initiative, cover crops, local control of livestock siting, and increased CAFO monitoring and oversight. The Farmers Union recommended the state incentivize farmers to move to grass feeding, though legislators including Rep. Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma) seemed opposed to the suggestion.

After the Farmers Union, Matt Krueger, executive director of Wisconsin Land & Water, briefed the task force on the group’s water quality goals and some solutions on how to achieve them. Krueger emphasized the importance of funding county conservation departments, in addition to other conservation programs and enforcement measures for statewide water quality standards. Krueger gave the example of Minnesota, which he said recently raised a sales tax and is using some of the additional revenue to fund conservation. During Krueger’s presentation, Rep. Shankland brought up the suggestion of forming groundwater management districts (structured similar to current lake districts in Wisconsin).

Next, Wisconsin Conservation Voters’s government affairs director Jennifer Giegerich presented the committee with more recommendations to reduce current and emerging contaminants in drinking water. Giegerich’s suggestions included banning the spread of manure on frozen ground, expanding recently updated Department of Natural Resources (DNR) runoff management rules (NR 151) to apply to more sensitive areas, and increasing CAFO fees.

Giegerich also claimed PFAS are dangerous emerging contaminants in Wisconsin’s drinking water.  To better address emerging contaminants, Giegerich suggested removing pieces of the regulatory process enacted in 2011 Act 21 that require agencies to evaluate the costs of proposed rules on regulated industries and to include comparisons of regulatory approaches used in neighboring states. Furthermore, Giegerich argued DNR should set groundwater standards for broad classes of chemicals like PFAS, instead of on an individual basis. According to Giegerich, Wisconsin should “aggressively” work to set a classwide PFAS standard.

Giegerich also discussed the issue of lead in drinking water, expressing support for lead pipe removal initiatives in Gov. Tony Evers’s proposed budget. Additionally, Giegerich recommended the legislature expand on the 2017 Leading on Lead Act by repealing limits to local governments’ ability to provide financial assistance for the replacement of lead service lines.

Next, Clean Wisconsin addressed some of the same concerns as Giegerich related to PFAS and lead service lines. Clean Wisconsin urged legislators to look not just at the costs of conservation programs but also at the “cost of inaction” (i.e. health and infrastructure costs) if they do not implement the programs. Clean Wisconsin discussed the pending Clean Wisconsin v. DNR litigation that will decide whether DNR may consider cumulative impacts in issuing high capacity well permits. In response to a question from Sen. Mark Miller (D-Monona), Clean Wisconsin said they could potentially support a moratorium on high capacity well permits.

After Clean Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Corn Growers Association briefed the task force on their Soil Health Partnership program. The program enrolls farmers to participate in data collection and experimentation to determine whether ground water quality initiatives such as cover crops would be economic from farmers’ perspectives.

Finally, the Wisconsin Water Quality Association presented to task force members their work on monitoring PFAS and lead pipe legislation across the country. The association represents water treatment manufacturers and stakeholders, who produce “point of use” and “point of entry” treatment products, such as in-home water filters and water softeners.

The task force’s next meeting will be on May 8. Having concluded the meetings in Madison, the task force will now be traveling the state to take public testimony in addition to more invited speakers.

At the first meeting in March, the task force heard recommendations from several state agencies.