Just over a year ago, Representatives Todd Novak, R-Dodgeville, and Travis Tranel, R-Cuba City, had just reviewed the initial results from the Southwest Wisconsin Groundwater and Geological Study. While they were quick to acknowledge the results were just a first step in better understanding groundwater and contaminants, they were concerned enough to call on Speaker Robin Vos to create a Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality to gather information and make recommendations to improve water quality throughout the state.
Vos responded quickly, naming Novak the chair of the 16-member bipartisan committee that was directed to travel the state and conduct hearings, listening to the concerns of citizens and compiling possible solutions for a variety of water quality challenges facing communities in every corner of Wisconsin. Fourteen hearings were held, with the task force releasing their final report and recommendations to the public on Jan. 8.
“While there is no one silver bullet that will solve all of our state’s water quality issues at once, we are pleased to recommend a strong bipartisan package of legislation that addresses many of the top concerns that we heard about at our hearings around the state,” Novak said.
The legislative package includes a $10 million investment from the state for the support of 13 recommendations — from a new Office of Water Quality and the hiring of a state hydrogeologist to increased funding for county conservation staff and assistance to farmers interested in trying out different conservation practices.
Concerns regarding nitrate contamination, particularly for those with private wells, was a recurring theme at the hearings, the report said. Novak echoed those concerns, citing high nitrates as one of the reasons he and Tranel called for the assembly of a task force.
Two of the 13 recommendations directly address nitrates — the first recommendation includes revising the already established Well Compensation Grant Program to better address nitrate contamination and help those who need immediate assistance with contamination; the second recommendation includes appropriation of $1 million in fiscal year 2020-21 for a nitrogen optimization pilot program in which the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection would award grants of up to $50,000 to agricultural producers to implement a project that reduces nitrogen loading or uses nitrogen at an optimal rate while protecting water quality.
“The goal with this program is to reduce nitrates and allow farmers to come up with ideas,” Novak said. “This came out of the hearings from farmers in some areas that have reduced nitrate levels and kind of want to expand that. Farmers in each area of the state want to experiment, do things and see how it works.”
The committee also heard from farmers about the successes and challenges in implementing conservation practices at the local level, which prompted a recommendation to provide several provisions regarding managed grazing, Alliance for Water Stewardship program certification, cover crop insurance rebates and the producer-led watershed grant program.
“As we’ve heard, managed grazing really works,” Novak said. “This (bill) would create a position to coordinate and work with farmers to come up with managed grazing plans and be a resource for them.”
The recommendation also directs DATCP to administer a new program that would provide grants to reimburse costs incurred by an agricultural producer to apply for a certification of water stewardship from the Alliance of Water Stewardship. Miltrim Farms, Inc., in Marathon County recently became the first farm in the U.S. to achieve a water stewardship certification from the organization after completing an almost two year process, with Novak adding that the certification is just another opportunity for farmers to show their conservation ethic to the public.
The committee also heard at the hearings about the environmental and economic advantages of utilizing cover crops, building into their recommendation a bill that authorizes DATCP to administer another program to provide rebates of $5 per acre for crop insurance premiums paid for acres planted with a cover crop. This program would be modeled after a successful state program implemented in Iowa.
It was also recommended that funding be increased for producer-led watershed protection grants, which are authorized by DATCP. Increasing the funding for this program would allow every producer-led watershed group that applies for grant funding to receive it; the recommendation also aims to connect the watershed groups by rewarding groups that operate in adjacent watersheds.
Another recommendation acknowledges the importance of county conservation staff, with the committee asking that the state fully fund county conservation staff at $12.4 million. The state already funds one county conservation position and portions of the salaries for a second and third conservation position; however, one of the most frequently heard suggestions at public hearings was to increase state funding for county land and water conservation staff.
“This is really important because the county conservation agents are the boots on the ground,” Novak said. “They’re the ones that work with the farmers, they’re the ones identifying issues and they are the go-to person for farmers and others so we really need those positions and those people on the ground.”
Having adequate information and science on Wisconsin groundwater is also important to the committee, as is sharing that information through outreach. Two of the 13 recommendations touch on just that: the creation of a new Office of Water Policy and the hiring of a hydrogeologist and creation of a grant program to support well testing and educational outreach.
“The SWIGG study went very well, I thought,” Novak said. “My goal is to have every county have data — we need data. And there are other counties that have reached out to us and want to do similar studies but can’t afford it, so this would be a matching grant that would help them.
“We want people to get their wells tested. We need more data. We need professional people out there talking to people, and you can tell from the package, that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Another aspect of that includes training tomorrow’s water experts, with another recommendation aiming to create the first ever undergraduate degree for water in the nation. It’s something universities in the state have been thinking about for awhile, Novak said, and the bill attached to this recommendation would help them in establishing that new degree.
“The more people we have with graduate degrees in water, the better,” he said. “There are many people interested in going to school to understand water. And everyone wants clean drinking water. It’s really been on the radar for the last few years, and I think it’s important for people who want to get into the study of water to allow them.”
Other recommendations in the report included expanding the “clean sweep” program to include collection of certain firefighting foams that contain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS; and revising eligibility requirements for the Wisconsin Fund for Septic Systems and delaying the sunset for the fund until June 30, 2023. The program, which provides grants for a portion of the costs to repair, rehabilitate or replace failing septic systems installed before July 1, 1978, was set to expire on June 30, 2021.
“It’s all a big puzzle, and this is just a piece,” Novak said.
Sustainable funding for water quality initiatives is another piece of the puzzle, with Novak suggesting that a water fund be established where money is available for water programs and water related needs, instead of worrying about funding on a two-year budget cycle. Neighboring Minnesota has in place an amendment that provides three-eighths of one percent state sales tax over a 25-year period to fund certain types of projects in the state, including water quality projects, but Novak said Wisconsin legislators “don’t have the appetite” to raise the sales tax for water.
“Water quality is a priority, and the $10 million is just a starting point and we’re going to build off of this every session afterwards,” he said. “It’s going to take some time. Water issues didn’t develop overnight and we’re not going to solve them overnight, so we’ve got to build off of everything and keep going.
“This is just a start, and you’ll see more money going into water with each budget going forward.”
The complete report and recommendations are available online at waterqualitywi.com.