State leaders must act quickly on PFAS: Wisconsinites need clean water now

Feb 10, 2022 | Clean Water Now, Drinking Water, Groundwater, Wisconsin Water Agenda

La Crosse County residents are familiar with the problem of PFAS contamination. The Town of Rib Mountain and Rhinelander also recently joined the list of hot spots including Marinette, Peshtigo, Milwaukee, Madison, and Eau Claire. This week the City of Wausau got the bad news that all of their municipal wells tested above the unsafe drinking water levels of 20 parts per trillion.

The Department of Natural Resources is developing new rules that would set stronger limits to the amount of PFAS in drinking water and groundwater. In public testimonies about the proposed standards, Wisconsinites—including from La Crosse and French Island—spoke passionately about their health concerns and what it’s like for their families to have to rely on bottled water.

We know what PFAS toxins do. The large family of chemicals have nasty health effects, are persistent in the environment, and are difficult to destroy. We know where PFAS toxins come from. The chemicals are used in everyday products, firefighting foam, and services like dry cleaning. 

What we don’t know is the best way to get the toxins out of our soil and water once they are there, and what to do with them once they are removed. Preventing these chemicals from entering our environment would have been the smartest path, but our system of environmental protection is not geared toward prevention. 

We’ve seen this before. PFAS chemicals are just the latest in a long list of unpleasant “discoveries” along with the toxic impacts of PCBs, asbestos, mercury, nitrates, lead, and many others.

What our response to water pollution shows us is that our system of environmental protection is based on a series of crises. Though our laws may be well-intentioned, they are not designed to prevent harm. They are designed to slow the release of substances into our environment and this normalizes degradation. 

Worse, the system in Wisconsin has been, and continues to be, eroded by the current state legislature. Given changes that the legislature has made in the last ten years, it is now virtually impossible to set additional meaningful standards. So we will continue to see PFAS-like issues moving forward unless we change the way we do things.

The PFAS rules on drinking and groundwater will soon come before the DNR’s Natural Resources Board for approval and are a small step in the right direction. The NRB and state legislature must approve the proposed rules and move quickly to regulate other PFAS and PFOS chemicals. 

We also need the rules to reduce PFAS exposure sooner than later. Under some of these proposed rules, actions to reduce PFAS will not be required for close to 20 years. Our state also can and should implement stronger standards more quickly than the federal government.

The people of Wisconsin know that our state’s greatest asset is our clean water. It’s one of the few things our purple state can agree on. We also know that when Wisconsinites have the opportunity to vote for clean water, they do across political party lines.

In April 2021, voters in Marquette County (73%), Portage County (77%) and Wood County (76%) approved an advisory referendum question that read, “Should the State of Wisconsin establish a right to clean water to protect human health, the environment, and the diverse cultural and natural heritage of Wisconsin?”

Thanks to leaders on the La Crosse County Board, this question will be on local ballots on April 5. Eau Claire County also approved adding this question to local ballots. Learn more at

Voting YES for clean water in Wisconsin will allow voters to send a message to our state legislature that water protection must be an urgent priority. 

We need better PFAS standards and funding for clean up and prevention. We need leaders to act on the recommendations from the 2019 Speaker’s Water Quality Task Force hearings. We need clean water now. 

– Bill Davis, Senior Legal Analyst

The La Crosse Tribune published this op ed on February, 6, 2022.