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Wisconsin Assembly passes bipartisan water-quality bills

Brennan dredging units work in 2012 on the Fox River near Ashwaubenon as part of a PCB removal project. A bipartisan, $10 million series of more than a dozen bills designed to combat groundwater contamination in Wisconsin was passed by the state Assembly on Tuesday. (H. Marc Larson/The Green Bay Press-Gazette via AP, File)

Brennan dredging units work in 2012 on the Fox River near Ashwaubenon as part of a PCB removal project. A bipartisan, $10 million series of more than a dozen bills designed to combat groundwater contamination in Wisconsin was passed by the state Assembly on Tuesday. (H. Marc Larson/The Green Bay Press-Gazette via AP, File)

By SCOTT BAUER
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Assembly passed a $10 million series of 13 bills designed to combat groundwater contamination on Tuesday. Lawmakers called the legislation a good start but said it fell short of providing a remedy to persistent and growing concerns about water pollution.

Ten of the 13 bills were passed unanimously. Despite the broad support, it wasn’t clear whether all the bills would pass the Republican-controlled Senate, which has yet to schedule them for a vote.

“This is the beginning, not the end,” Democratic Rep. Katrina Shankland, who served on a water-quality task force, said Tuesday.”If this is the last thing we do in the Legislature, we have failed.”

Rep. Todd Novak, a Republican from Dodgeville, agreed.

“The challenges with water quality did not start overnight, they started decades ago, and these bills are just the beginning,” he said. “Clean water is not a Democrat or Republican issue, it’s a state of Wisconsin issue.”

The bills passed by the Assembly contain recommendations from a water-quality task force called by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos in response to concerns about groundwater contamination in the state. There is increased tension between environmentalists and farmers over the contamination of wells, the spreading of manure, the proliferation of large animal confinement facilities and the use of fertilizers.

The proposals take on the issue from several angles, including expanding conservation efforts, bolstering research and instruction, and improving state laws and regulations.

More needs to be done to prevent contamination as well as cleaning up pollution, said Democratic state Rep. Chris Taylor, of Madison, during debate on the bills in the Legislature’s budget committee last week.

“We have got to be much more aggressive,” Taylor said. “We’ve got to stop the manure from running into people’s water in the first place and that is where (Republicans) have failed.”

She called the proposals “little baby steps.”

The proposals would set up a new water policy office; increase the number of county conservation workers; increase grants for owners of wells contaminated with manure or fertilizer to provide money to rebuild or replace them; increase spending on studies of water quality; add a state agriculture staff member who will concentrate on grazing techniques for livestock to allow grasses to replenish; and make grants available for farmers who grow crops that require little fertilizer.

Time is running out for the Legislature to pass the bills. The Senate was not scheduled to vote on the measures Wednesday and plans to be in session just one day in March before quitting for the year.

Any proposals that pass both houses must be signed into law by Gov. Tony Evers, who has made improving water quality a priority. Novak said he was optimistic Evers would sign the bills.

Under Evers, the state Department of Natural Resources has started studying water quality in southwestern Wisconsin, informing residents of the dangers of lead poisoning, set restrictions on manure and fertilizer in areas prone to groundwater pollution and developed standards for pollutants found in industrial products known as PFAS. They are also known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down naturally and can accumulate in the body.

Studies have shown the chemicals can increase the risk of cancer, weaken the immune system and affect cholesterol levels, childhood behavior and the ability to get pregnant.

One bill the Assembly passed Tuesday sets up a state-run program to quickly collect and dispose of firefighting foam, one of the sources of PFAS.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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