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Soak up the sun: UW-Eau Claire freshman Andrew Lindaas of McFarland relaxed between classes on Wednesday. View more photos at

Legislators, task force discuss water quality at UW-Stout

Water quality continues to be a major discussion in Wisconsin.

On Wednesday, members of Speakers’ Task Force on Water Quality put together by state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos met with about 70 individuals at a public hearing held at UW-Stout.

The task force of 13 Assembly members and four state senators were joined by local legislators Sen. Patty Schachtner, D-Somerset, Sen. Jeff Smith, D-Eau Claire, Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, and Rep. Warren Petryk, R-Eleva, who are not members of the committee.

A total of 13 hearings were held during the past few months with Menomonie being the penultimate stop. On Thursday, the task force was scheduled for a hearing in Superior. Other locations where hearings were held included La Crosse, Lancaster, Madison, Janesville, Racine, Green Bay, Marinette, Mauston, Stevens Point and Tomahawk.

The task force was created to gather information and make policy recommendations to improve the quality of water in Wisconsin, according to the task force’s website.

The mission of the task force is to identify the best practices for testing and data collection, determining the sources and causes of contaminants impacting water quality and consulting with stakeholders to assess current practices to manage runoff. The task force also aims to investigate solutions to protect a healthy and stable supply of water and to study best practices for designing wells and septic systems to safeguard a healthy water supply.

Representatives from state agriculture and local conservationists and others addressed the committee before public comments were accepted.

Dunn County conservationist Daniel Prestebak gave an overview of conservation programs in the county. Prestebak said Dunn County has about 400 miles of impaired streams and waterways.

No-till and cover crops conservation practices have increased in the county, Prestebak said, but conservation reserve land has decreased from 20,000 acres to 4,000 in the past five years. He said rotations featuring three crops are needed for healthy soil. Rotating plantings of corn and soybeans is effective, and more small grains need to be mixed into yearly planting schedules. Prestebak said soil health and then water quality can be improved if there was a larger market for those small grains.

“Healthy soil is the only way we are going to clean up our water and protect our groundwater,” Prestebak said. “Dunn County has embraced this. We have adopted healthy soil as a mechanism to clean up our water.”

Prestebak asked the committee to consider more staff in land conservation, UW-Extension and the National Resource Conservation Service to work with farmers. He suggested increasing in length of Watershed Protection Grants for producers and additional resources for staffing and groundwater testing.

Water health and drinking water quality are a big concern for Dunn County. Dunn County Health Department Director KT Gallagher said 60 percent of county residents get their drinking water from private wells. With no requirements for testing, Gallagher said many people aren’t aware whether their water contains contaminants. Resources to cover the costs of private well testing could provide incentive for more residents to test their water.

“There is no systematic well testing so that folks don’t know their own risk when it comes to contaminants in their drinking water,” Gallagher said.

The Wisconsin Dairy Alliance and Dairy Business presented to the committee detailing the impact Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations have on water quality. While CAFOs are highly regulated, they only include around 27 percent of all cattle in the state, the alliance said. Many smaller farms aren’t required to follow regulations only in place for only larger operations.

“To solve this there needs to be an act of compliance for all sources not just some of them,” Cindy Leitner, president of the Wisconsin Dairy Alliance, said.

John Holevoet, director of government affairs for the Dairy Business Association, asked the committee to consider increasing resources for soil mapping and groundwater testing. Holevoet said there needs to be more promotion for manure irrigation and use of vegetated treatment areas surrounding farms. One way to support farmers taking steps to meet new standards, Holevoet said, is to make it easier for farmers to get approval for manure-treatment systems and manure digesters.

Michael Engleson of the Wisconsin Lake Partnership, Eric Olson, director of the UW-Extension Lake Program and Dick Lamers and Rod Olson of the Red Cedar Watershed Conference also presented to the task force. Jim Swanson, director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, and UW-Stout professor Scott P. McGovern concluded the invited speakers.

Prestebak said there isn’t an easy or short-term solution. Counties with fewer water quality problems still need the resources to maintain that level of quality.

“There [are] resource needs in every county and those counties that aren’t competitive (for grants) because their water is in good shape — they need to protect it and keep it that way,” Prestebak said.

Girl accused of killing toddler appears in court

CHIPPEWA FALLS — The 11-year-old Chippewa Falls girl accused of killing a six-month-old infant last fall is still considered incompetent to stand trial, keeping the murder case filed against her in limbo.

The girl was given a competency review by Dr. Michael Hammer in late August, which showed the girl has actually shown some regression in her mental capacity, said Dunn County Judge James Peterson, who is presiding over the case.

“The defendant is not competent to proceed,” prosecuting attorney Richard Dufour told Peterson during a court hearing Wednesday in Chippewa County Court.

Defense attorney Laurie Osberg noted the state has now filed a fourth criminal complaint in the case, with the most recent filing increasing the charge to first-degree intentional homicide, a Class A felony.

The attorneys once again discussed if the girl is competent enough to waive a preliminary hearing, even though she has been found incompetent to stand trial. Osberg said she believes the girl is now able to understand a preliminary hearing. The girl, who has been incarcerated at Winnebago Mental Health Institute in Oshkosh since March 5, made the trip to Chippewa Falls on Tuesday, allowing her to get a good night’s rest and meet with her attorneys.

“We believe she is refreshed and ready,” Osberg said.

However, Dufour contends that you can’t be competent for one type of hearing but incompetent for another.

The girl will continue to receive quarterly mental health evaluations to see if she becomes competent. Another court hearing was scheduled for Oct. 11. Peterson said he would address at that hearing if she can waive the preliminary hearing, even if she is still not competent.

Before concluding the hearing, Peterson turned and spoke directly to the girl, asking her to do her best to interact with her attorneys and be engaged in her own defense.

“It’s very important you do participate,” Peterson told her. “I know it may be difficult for you. But you need to communicate with your attorneys, and show that you understand the case, and understand what you allegedly did.”

Peterson said state law makes it unclear in how they proceed.

“I can’t imagine that this scenario was contemplated,” Peterson said. “There is not a statute or a work-around for that type of (preliminary) hearing.”

Peterson added: “The path of the law doesn’t get us through the woods, so to speak.”

Defense attorney Michael Steuer requested that the girl be removed from an adult care unit at Winnebago Mental Health Institute and transferred to a juvenile care unit. Peterson agreed to that change. Osberg said she would like to see the girl then be allowed to be moved to a juvenile unit closer to the Chippewa Valley, to be closer to her family and cut down on the lengthy travel for hearings.

Osberg also requested that Peterson have the state turn over documents, including autopsy reports, so he can begin preparing her defense, if and when she does become competent.

The girl is accused of stomping on the head of 6-month-old Jaxon Hunter on Oct. 30, 2018, causing his death two days later. She was 10 years old at the time.

Jaxon was born April 6, 2018. He was at a day care, which also serves as a foster home, in the town of Tilden on Oct. 30 when the girl — who lived there as a foster child — was alone inside the house while everyone else was playing outside. The girl told authorities she panicked after dropping the baby, and then she stomped on his head when he began to cry.

Jaxon was transferred to a hospital in Minnesota, where he died Nov. 1, two days after the attack.

The girl appeared in Chippewa County’s adult court Nov. 5, and she was previously charged with first-degree reckless homicide, which is a Class B felony, with a maximum penalty of 40 years in prison and 20 years of extended supervision. The Class A felony she now faces carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. She was ordered to be held on a $50,000 cash bond and be placed in a secure detention center.

Wisconsin committee releases $200K for farmer mental health

MADISON (AP) — The Wisconsin Legislature’s finance committee voted unanimously Wednesday to allow state agriculture officials to spend an additional $200,000 to help struggling farmers deal with depression and mental health problems.

Wisconsin farmers have been wrestling with a combination of problems over the last few years, including an industry transition toward a factory farm model, falling milk prices and President Donald Trump’s trade war.

Nearly 700 dairy farms closed in Wisconsin last year, which was the highest number of closures since 2011.

Total statewide net cash farm income in Wisconsin declined 22% between 2012 and 2017, according to data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Wisconsin milk prices have dropped from $26.60 per 100 pounds in September 2014 to an average of $16.76 from January 2018 through June 2019.

Meanwhile, the suicide rate for male farmers that managed their operations was 44.9 per 100,000 in 2012 and 32.2 in 2015, according to data released in November by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The suicide rate among all working-age adults, by comparison, was 17.3 per 100,000 in 2016.

The Joint Finance Committee set aside $200,000 as part of the 2019-21 state budget to help farmers struggling with mental health issues, but the panel didn’t release it to the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

Republicans who control the committee said Wednesday that they want oversight of agency spending because their constituents expect accountability and they wanted to wait to see what recommendations a suicide prevention task force Assembly Speaker Robin Vos appointed might provide.

DATCP Secretary Brad Pfaff issued a blistering news release in July accusing the committee of abandoning farmers after the panel didn’t consider releasing the money at a meeting that month.

Pfaff asked the committee for the $200,000 during a hearing Wednesday. He said his department wants to use the money to offer farmers counseling vouchers, set up workshops to help farmers learn stress management, coping and grieving skills, and teach mental health care providers about challenges farmers face. According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, DATCP had only $1,300 left for counseling vouchers as of Aug. 21.

Republican committee members immediately attacked Pfaff, a member of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ cabinet. They accused him of never communicating to committee leaders the immediate need for the money, failing to tap other DATCP accounts to fund counseling vouchers and embarrassing them with his news release.

“I do believe somebody was playing politics with farmers and that’s really unfortunate,” Rep. John Nygren, one of the committee’s co-chairs, said.

Pfaff repeatedly said he has been communicating with Vos’ suicide prevention task force, which only seemed to annoy Nygren further.

“How can we work with you if you actually aren’t providing us the information?” he said. “I’m not sure how there’s a trust there when communications go through the media.”

Democratic Rep. Chris Taylor quipped that her party learns about Republican proposals through news releases, too. She chided Republicans for squabbling over $200,000.

In the end, the committee unanimously approved a motion to give Pfaff the money.

The motion also pulled $100,000 from the state Department of Health Services and placed it in the committee’s holding account. The motion allows the health department to petition the committee to release it as suicide prevention grant to recipients the department chooses.


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