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OPINION: Clean water a deliberate policy choice

In recent years, the safety of our drinking water has come to the forefront of Wisconsin politics.

Extensive studies have shown the extreme health consequences that contaminated water has for our residents.

Contaminants like nitrates and bacteria have been linked to blue-baby syndrome, thyroid disease, and some cancers, harming our rural residents. Meanwhile, lead continues to poison children statewide.

In Kewaunee County, 60 percent of sampled wells were contaminated with fecal microbes, leading one researcher to proclaim that the water resembled a “fecal soup.” A 2019 study found that 42 percent of sampled wells in southwest Wisconsin contained contaminants that exceeded federal health standards.

We didn’t get here overnight. Budget cuts, along with a deregulatory culture and political interference in various agencies, have significantly affected the way Wisconsin protects its water. To understand the current state of our water, we must look at the deliberate policy choices made in the past.

A chronological analysis details a systematic dismantling of the state’s Department of Natural Resources. In 2011, environmental inspections of large farms fell by 46 percent while permit-violation notices hit a 12-year low. Meanwhile, DNR experienced the highest vacancy rate in 14 years.

Just three years later, a judge declared a “massive regulatory failure” was behind extensive groundwater contamination in Kewaunee County. The judge also suggested that the agency had failed to use existing law to deal with the situation.

Despite concerns from affected communities, environmental organizations, and the EPA, the previous administration continued to reduce the enforcement capabilities of important agencies. Over the course of three budgets passed by former Gov. Scott Walker and legislative Republicans, DNR saw their budget slashed by $59 million and close to 200 positions eliminated.

Meanwhile, the Department of Justice under former attorney general Brad Schimel saw fines paid by Wisconsin polluters fall to 30-year lows in 2015. The former attorney general also wrote an opinion claiming the DNR went too far in protecting water in 2016. During the same time period, he demoted the long-standing director of DOJ’s environmental-protection unit and shrunk the unit to its smallest size in 25 years.

Clean water is essential to healthy residents, our economy, and our Wisconsin way of life. Governor Tony Evers understands this, and that’s why he has declared 2019 the Year of Clean Drinking Water and August as National Water Quality Month. It’s also why he has set aside additional resources to clean up water pollution and contaminated wells and replace lead pipes.

Clean water is a health issue. It is an economic issue. It is a moral issue. It’s time we connect the dots and ensure that future generations can enjoy safe, clean water.

State Sen. Patty Schachtner represents Wisconsin’s 10th Senate district. The district includes parts of Burnett, Dunn, Pierce, Polk and St. Croix counties.

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