When Gov. Tony Evers declared 2019 the Year of Clean Drinking Water, Tom Crave knew agriculture needed to be part of the discussions surrounding that initiative.

Crave, of Crave Brothers Farm in Waterloo and Dairy Business Association president, and other members of the Dairy Business Association used Evers’ prompt as a way to engage in discussions with members of several environmental groups to come up with ideas for state-level policy changes that support clean water without being over-burdensome for farmers.

“Some of us at DBA said, ‘We have to be in that conversation. We don’t want to be on the outside looking in,’” Crave said during a Dec. 15 virtual press conference to announce the partnership between Clean Wisconsin, the Dairy Business Association, The Nature Conservancy in Wisconsin, and Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association. “We thought this would be a good opportunity to engage with the state government in steering policy on clean water.”

The groups outlined four principles that will guide efforts to push for policy changes, including ensuring clean drinking water through increased well testing and well replacement funding; updating the state’s concentrated animal feeding operation program through bringing more farms into the CAFO permitting process and improving the program’s efficiency; bolstering current conservation efforts like the farmer-led watershed model; and improving the state’s non-point pollution program intended to keep fertilizer pesticides from entering waterways.

The partnership hopes to be a catalyst for critically needed policies, the groups said.

“We all value clean water and we all want economically and environmentally resilient farms. Our groups recognize that caring for both is a shared responsibility,” Crave said. “Farmers are problem-solvers, and every day we are seeing more and more innovative conservation practices that protect and improve water quality around the state. Moving forward together with others who share this commitment will accelerate progress.”

Wisconsin created its current program for addressing non-point pollution from agricultural sources almost 20 years ago, but those rules have still never been fully implemented and the program has never been properly funded, according to Matt Krueger, executive director of Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association.

“Wisconsin should move toward holding all farms accountable for these standards regardless of size, type and availability of cost-share money,” the groups said in their Guiding Policy Principles. “This makes sense for the environment, but it is also fairer for farms.”

Representatives from several of the groups explained that policy disagreements between agricultural and environmental groups have often led to conflicts and inaction on issues relating to agriculture and the environment. As partners, they hope to change how the state approaches drinking water protection and farmer support, the groups said.

“We can all agree that the status quo isn’t working for water in Wisconsin, nor agriculture,” Krueger said. “Now, more than ever, there is real opportunity — and need — to develop a sustainable vision for both going forward.”

John Holevoet, director of government affairs at Dairy Business Association, said the groups plan to engage with lawmakers on their efforts in the next legislative session.

“Some of these efforts are going to take a lot of work, they’re going to take more stakeholders getting together to have conversations about what it might look like, especially changes to the CAFO program or the non-point program,” he said. “Some of the things that deal with supporting existing innovation efforts and promoting things we can do for clean water in terms of research and dealing with existing sources of contamination are things that have a fiscal component. Some of those ideas are not new but have not yet been fully realized. We’ll be building on those ideas and driving them forward in this legislative session.”

Costs of any plans were not available, but Scott Laeser, water program director at Clean Wisconsin, said his group recently released a study looking at public health risks associated with nitrate contamination in Wisconsin and put a number to what medical costs can add up to in a year from health complications associated with the issue. He said funding would likely have to come from public and private sources to realize their goals.

“We have under-invested in water issues for a long time in Wisconsin,” Laeser said. “It’s important that we balance the concerns about the costs of this issue with the recognition that there is a significant cost of inaction.”