By TODD RICHMOND, Associated Press
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Tony Evers plans to use his first state budget to call for allowing state environmental and agricultural officials to borrow nearly $70 million more over the next two years to combat water pollution and replace lead pipes, following through on his pledge to improve the quality of drinking water.
Evers isn’t expected to release his full two-year spending plan until Feb. 28 but gave The Associated Press a broad preview of his water-quality initiatives. The governor called his plan an investment that will improve water quality throughout the state.
It’s unclear how the proposals will go over with the Republicans who control the Legislature. They’ve formed their own water-pollution task force and are drafting their own bills to attack many of the same problems.
Jennifer Geigerich, a lobbyist for the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, called Evers’ budget plans “a good first step to addressing our drinking water crisis.”
“We are very supportive of increasing bonding for these programs,” she said.
Evers’ plan would let state agriculture officials borrow as much as $10 million over two years to provide grants to farmers for building infrastructure that reduces agricultural pollution. The agency is now allowed to borrow only $7 million.
The Department of Natural Resources, meanwhile, would be allowed to issue about $65 million more worth of bonds. The money would go toward grants meant to help local governments reduce pollution; clean up contaminated soil along the Milwaukee and St. Louis rivers; and provides loans to municipalities to cover half the cost of replacing lead pipes.
Evers also wants to spend an additional $300,000 to study water-pollution management and enforce new manure-spreading restrictions the DNR enacted last year for places along Wisconsin’s Lake Michigan shoreline, where porous Silurian bedrock allows contaminants to seep easily into groundwater.
And he wants to spend $1.46 million on various other plans, such as instructing farmers on how to prevent pollution, setting up a website with advice on how to prevent pollution and developing software to help farmers use fertilizer as safely as possible.
The Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation was still analyzing Evers’ proposals. Karen Gefvert, a lobbyist for the group, had a guarded response to the plans.
“Increased funding for northeast Wisconsin’s (Silurian bedrock) areas would help farmers implement the new performance standards,” she said in an email. “In order for farmers to implement best management practices increased funding for education and outreach is important.”
The governor also wants to add four positions at the DNR for people who could help speed up the enforcement of new water quality standards in the Wisconsin, Milwaukee, Rock and St. Croix river basins.
Wisconsin has struggled with groundwater contamination for decades. A survey conducted by county health departments between 2007 and 2010 found 47 percent of nearly 4,000 wells used by poor families with pregnant women or young children had levels of contaminants that exceeded water-quality standards. A third of the wells in Kewaunee County tested in 2015 had unsafe levels of nitrates and bacteria. A survey 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 contained water exceeding federal standards for bacteria.
Meanwhile, at least 176,000 Wisconsin homes and businesses get water through lead service lines. Lead from the lines can flake off into the water and cause permanent brain damage in children. Replacing a single line can cost thousands of dollars.
Evers noted the dire situation in his State of the State address last month, declaring 2019 the year of clean drinking water .
It’s unclear whether Evers’ initiatives will make it out of the Legislature, which Republicans still control by comfortable margins. After he introduces his proposed budget later this month, Republicans lawmakers will spend the spring and early summer making revisions before sending plan back to Evers for his signature.
Kit Beyer, a spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, and Alec Zimmerman, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Evers’ plans.
Republicans’ response to Evers’ declaration in his speech was guarded. Vos last month formed his own water-quality task force and Sen. Rob Cowles said he’s drawing up what he called “major water initiatives” of his own, including a bill that would shift to the DNR the full $345 collected through annual water-pollution permits for factory farms. Right now $95 goes to the agency for permit enforcement and $250 to the state’s general fund.