By TODD RICHMOND, Associated Press
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Tony Evers pledged in his State of the State address to clean up drinking water in Wisconsin, promising to work to replace lead pipes throughout the state and improve well-water quality during what he deemed the year of clean drinking water. Here’s a look at the extent of water pollution in Wisconsin, how lawmakers are dealing with it and Evers’ promise:
WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?
It’s twofold, starting with private-well contamination. A survey conducted by county health departments between 2007 and 2010 found that 47 percent of the nearly 4,000 wells now used by low-income families with pregnant women or young children had levels of contamination that exceeded water-quality standards. The contaminants included nitrates, which come from fertilizer and manure and have been linked to adverse health effects, including thyroid disease.
A survey whose results were released in November by the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Geological Survey found that 42 percent of 301 randomly selected wells in Iowa, Grant and LaFayette counties exceeded federal standards for bacteria.
A third of all wells tested in 2015 in Kewaunee County had unsafe levels of nitrates and bacteria. The La Crosse County Health Department warned 2,000 households last spring that their wells could be contaminated by nitrates.
Meanwhile, at least 176,000 Wisconsin homes and businesses get water through lead service lines. More than half of those pipes are in Milwaukee. Lead from the lines can flake off into water and cause permanent brain damage in young children. Replacing a single line can cost thousands of dollars.
WHAT’S CAUSING WELL CONTAMINATION?
Polluted well water has been a problem in Wisconsin for decades, according to Kevin Masarik, a groundwater specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and UW-Extension. Some parts of the state, such as eastern Wisconsin, have thin top soil and porous bedrock, allowing runoff from manure and fertilizer to easily seep into groundwater. The agriculture industry has been expanding, turning forest and grassland into farm fields. Some farms may not have enough land for manure to be spread evenly, Masarik said. Some groundwater contamination has been traced to faulty septic systems, too.
ARE LEGISLATORS AND OTHER STATE OFFICIALS DOING ANYTHING ABOUT IT?
The state Department of Natural Resources adopted restrictions on manure spreading in 15 eastern Wisconsin counties, including Kewaunee, last year. The limits vary according to the depth of each farm’s topsoil and carve out zones around wells where manure can’t be spread. Factory farms won’t have to comply with them for years, however. The restrictions won’t be imposed until the farms renew their permits, which last five years.
Former Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill allowing public utilities to provide grants and loans to customers to replace lead pipes. Municipalities must pass ordinances allowing utilities to provide the money and utilities must get approval from the state Public Service Commission, however. So far, only Kenosha’s water utility has been approved, according to the PSC. Manitowoc and Menasha have applied for approval.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos announced earlier this month he will set up a task force to study water quality.
WHAT DID EVERS PROMISE?
The new governor called 2019 the year of clean drinking water in his State of the State speech on Tuesday. He cited a 2013 Department of Health Services study that found that among a sampling of wells, 47 percent didn’t meet health standards. He also mentioned the 176,000 lead pipes found in the state, saying that replacing them could cost more than $2 billion.
He pledged to sign an executive order to designate someone at the Department of Health Services “to take charge on addressing Wisconsin’s lead crisis and to help secure federal funding for prevention and treatment programs.”
He didn’t elaborate and he didn’t say what plans, if any, he has in store to reduce well pollution. His spokeswoman, Melissa Baldauff, didn’t respond to emails and a voicemail seeking more details.
WHAT’S THE REPUBLICAN RESPONSE?
Guarded. Evers’ water remarks did draw applause from Republicans, but that was tepid compared with Democrats’ standing ovations. Cowles said in an email that he was happy Evers and Vos want to work on cleaning up drinking water. He said he hopes both Evers and Vos will work with him on some “major water initiatives” he’s drawing up, including a bill that would send all the money collected from the state’s $345 annual factory-farm water-pollution permit fee to the DNR. Currently, $95 goes to the agency for permit enforcement and $250 to the state general fund.
WHAT DO ENVIRONMENTALISTS THINK?
They’re ecstatic. Jennifer Giegerich, a lobbyist for the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, said her organization is “thrilled” with Evers’ declaration concerning the year of clean drinking water. Wisconsin has never had a governor that made removing lead pipes a priority, she said. She added that Evers should form his own water-quality task force. Amber Meyer Smith, a lobbyist for the group Clean Wisconsin, said her group is happy to see Evers calling attention to lead pipes and hopes his declaration will draw attention to water pollution.
WHAT ABOUT FARMERS?
They’re waiting and watching. Karen Gefvert, a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, noted that lead pipe are unrelated to well contamination. John Holevoet, a lobbyist for the Dairy Business Association, which was opposed to the manure-spreading rules last year, didn’t immediately respond to voicemails. Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s largest business group, was also opposed to the manure restrictions.