Wisconsin water policy wrap up: when standing still means falling behind

Mar 6, 2024 | Water Policy, Wisconsin Water Agenda

When we look back at the 2023-24 legislative session, there was no major erosion of environmental policy in Wisconsin. There weren’t any major advancements either. In that sense, it was pretty quiet. But we saw severe drought conditions in much of our state, punctuated by flooding caused by dramatic and all too-common heavy rain events. And once again, thousands of Wisconsinites still can’t drink their water due to PFAS and nutrient contamination.

When we need leadership in the face of a changing climate and a strong defense of our water, standing still is actually falling behind.

State Budget

The state budget mostly maintained the status quo. It’s good we didn’t see the types of severe budget cuts we have seen in the past. However, considering inflation and a thinning staff, our Department of Natural Resources has less to work with than it did twenty years ago. Meanwhile, the workload has exploded due to PFAS, high-capacity wells, and CAFOs.

A bright spot in the state budget was the $125 million set aside in a PFAS trust fund intended to aid Wisconsinites with contaminated drinking water. However, state legislators did not give the DNR the authority to spend the funds. Instead, Senators Wimberger and Cowles authored Senate Bill 312.

Eyes on PFAS policy: Senate Bill 312

While there is wide agreement that “innocent landowners,” municipalities, and individuals on contaminated private wells need help addressing the PFAS problem, what began as a simple exercise in defining how money should be spent to help Wisconsin families became a tug-of-war over language that could exempt some responsible parties for clean up. 

As a result, more costs of dealing with PFAS could be passed along to taxpayers by weakening the ability of the DNR to enforce our spills law. In addition, SB 312 would not actually authorize the expenditure of the $125 million, meaning it would take additional action by the legislature to spend the money even if the bill became law.

That’s why watchdog groups like River Alliance of Wisconsin and those from affected communities had to say “no” to the bill. Fortunately, the DNR and Governor have made it clear that they will reject a bill with such limitations. Ultimately, the frustrating result is that there has been money available since July of last year that could have been helping people but instead is just sitting untouched.

There is a process that exists for the legislature to release the $125 million, and the Governor and DNR have repeatedly asked legislators to do so. To date, the legislature has refused. 

Nutrient pollution

Meanwhile, nutrient pollution continues to be a big and worsening problem with no significant action taken by the legislature to address it. Assembly Bill 220 would create a pilot program in Fenwood Creek to address nutrient pollution in that watershed. The bill passed out of committee with the funding cut in half, but It did not pass either house. Another bill that did not pass was AB 655 which would have created a pilot program to encourage farmers to convert to grazing. Both of these bills proposed pilot programs that originated in farmer-led efforts to improve soil health and water quality.

Natural Resources Board

The state Senate continued to reject Governor Evers’ experienced appointees to the DNR’s Natural Resources Board. This board of Wisconsin citizens votes on policy issues, mostly regarding rule-making details and land purchases. The Senate’s actions are an attempt to hamstring the DNR, the end result being a disempowered agency with a more restricted capacity to protect the health of people and our environment.

In public hearings for NRB appointees, the well-qualified volunteers were grilled by Senators over issues including “breaking” the REINS Act, a law passed during the Walker Administration in 2017 when the legislature amended administrative procedures. The act states that if compliance costs of a rule are more than $10 million in any two-year period, the agency must stop work on a rule and ask the legislature to give them permission to proceed.

Rules such as groundwater standards for PFAS and those to replace lead pipes could cost more than $10 million. Urgent solutions to toxins in our drinking water are the expensive result of unchecked pollution. Now our DNR is without a leader, has unconfirmed NRB appointees, and has stopped progress on groundwater standards due to the REINS Act. Yet the legislature has taken no action to make progress. The Governor asked the DNR to put in a formal request and funding plan to the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee to release the $125 million set aside in the budget to address PFAS contamination. There has been no action on this request as of this writing.

Other concerns with land and zoning policies

The legislature did pass a problematic bill that would transfer public trust lakebed lands to private owners. This issue has been around for years, but we do not think giving away public lands, as this bill does, is the way to move forward and hope the Governor will veto the bill.

Another problematic bill that passed both houses would allow towns to withdraw from county zoning. The bill was amended to protect floodplain and shoreland zoning, but there is no similar provision to protect the Farmland Preservation Program which would make it more difficult for farmers to engage in conservation efforts.

Hope for the future: new state Supreme Court and fair maps

Thanks to pressure created by the state’s highest court, we now have more competitive electoral maps, which could change the makeup of the state legislature. Hopefully this will make a path for water policy that helps people rather than creating loopholes for profit-driven pollution.

Ultimately we cannot wait for solutions from the State Capitol. That’s why our Wisconsin Water Agenda-inspired work to create a comprehensive, integrated water plan for the Central Wisconsin Basin is moving forward. The North Central Regional Planning Commission is interested in taking on this idea, so stay tuned.

– Bill Davis, Senior Legal Analyst


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