Legislative roadblocks force DNR to abandon water pollution protections

November 18, 2021 2:34 pm
Menominee River sign reading Clean Water Maters on a cut out fish

Sign at water celebration near Menominee River | Laina G. Stebbins

In early 2019, a drinking water study in rural southwest Wisconsin captured headlines across the state. An alarming 42% of the private wells sampled were contaminated with bacteria or nitrates or both, rendering the water unsafe to drink. The study came on the heels of other concerning well test results in northeast, central and western Wisconsin, and before long, Gov. Tony Evers declared 2019 “The Year of Clean Drinking Water” – a move to clean up the state’s growing contamination crisis. A centerpiece of the efforts announced by the governor that year was the development of new protections to reduce nitrate pollution in Wisconsin’s most geologically vulnerable areas, places where critical groundwater resources are quickly affected by contamination.

After two years of work, Wisconsin was on the verge of taking important steps to tackle the most widespread water pollution issue in the state. Nitrates are harmful chemicals that primarily come from agricultural activities, and they have been contaminating the drinking water of tens of thousands of rural Wisconsin families for years.  

Consuming excessive nitrates increases the risk of certain cancers, thyroid disease, and adverse birth outcomes like nervous system defects, premature birth and very low birth weight.  In a study published last year, Clean Wisconsin estimated that Wisconsinites pay between $23 million and $80 million in medical costs every year because of nitrate-contaminated drinking water and its associated health impacts.

Unfortunately, this week the Department of Natural Resources was forced to abandon its pursuit of new, commonsense rules to protect families because our own Legislature stands in the way. Instead of working to ensure Wisconsinites have safe water, the Legislature created a system of barriers to developing public health protections, undermining the DNR and preventing the agency from reducing water pollution.

For decades, the DNR used a clear, scientific process to set water quality standards and develop guidelines to help manufacturers and farmers protect their communities from water pollution. Now, the Legislature has developed an entirely new rule-making process driven by special interests, one that imposes arbitrary deadlines and elevates the costs of preventing pollution over the benefits of protecting families. We are now beginning to see just how damaging it has become for Wisconsin.

The actions DNR had proposed through this two-year process to reduce nitrate pollution were developed and discussed in detail with agricultural and conservation organizations, including ours. The proposed protections would have put Wisconsin families on a path to safe drinking water by prohibiting activities we know lead to nitrate pollution, like spreading manure on bare fields in vulnerable areas of the state and putting nitrogen fertilizer out late in the year, which greatly increases the chance it will seep into drinking water. The DNR’s work to develop a system that helps farmers track nitrogen applications on farm fields had one simple goal—don’t put so much nitrogen on those fields that it pollutes drinking water.  

Many agricultural groups strongly opposed these important protections, with some disingenuously predicting the end of farming as we know it and economic ruin for the agricultural industry. But the real economic burden for this pollution is being borne by families across Wisconsin who will go to bed tonight with their hopes for relief dashed, all because many in our Legislature are beholden to special interests that believe they should be allowed to pollute drinking water in order to turn a bigger profit.

Every day the Legislature stands in the way of the DNR is another day thousands of Wisconsinites bear the financial and health costs of unsafe water. But this is not an impossible problem. We can reduce nitrate pollution in our drinking water in ways that strengthen our agricultural industry and prepare farms for the future. The protections put forward by the DNR were a sensible, science-based attempt to guide that transition. Realizing a future with clean drinking water and a resilient, sustainable agricultural community will require changes to how we farm, and Clean Wisconsin is ready to work with and support the agricultural community throughout this process.

While we are extremely disheartened to see this effort undercut from the outset by the Legislature and some groups in the agriculture industry, we know many farmers and some farm organizations in Wisconsin are striving to play a positive role in reducing drinking water pollution. We are committed to continuing to work with the Department of Natural Resources, the Evers administration, state and local lawmakers, and the agricultural community to deliver on the promise of clean drinking water for every Wisconsin family.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Scott Laeser
Scott Laeser

Scott Laeser leads Clean Wisconsin’s efforts to address agricultural pollution of Wisconsin’s water resources. He works with state and local officials, agricultural groups, and other environmental organizations to advance policies that improve water quality in the state’s rivers, lakes, and streams, and improve access to and prevent pollution of Wisconsin’s drinking water. Clean Wisconsin’s water program advances these goals through legislative work, state agency actions, and public education, and Scott has served on Technical Advisory Committees for important rule-making efforts at the Department of Natural Resources. Outside of Clean Wisconsin, Scott operates an organic produce farm in Southwest Wisconsin, employing many of the agricultural conservation practices he advocates for at Clean Wisconsin.