The west entrance to the state Capitol building in Madison. (Photo by Jessica VanEgeren)
The west entrance to the state Capitol building in Madison. (Photo by Jessica VanEgeren)

$10 million seen as a down payment to tackle a long list of problem areas

The most comprehensive package to date tackling Wisconsin’s dirty water problems passed the Assembly Tuesday, with 13 bills investing $10 million to address lead, nitrate and other pollution issues  now headed to the Senate.

The Senate meets Wednesday and the bills are not scheduled for a vote. The Senate meets once more in March before the end of the session.

Rep. Gary Hebl, D-Sun Prairie, expressed concern the bills may meet the same fate as the package of bills passed by the Assembly to address the state’s homeless population, which also followed a task force created to tackle that issue.

“We are finally taking some action,” Hebl said. “But I really worry they could die in the Senate.”

The bills are the result of more than a year’s worth of work by a water quality task force convened by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Gov. Tony Evers declaring 2019 the “year of clean water.”

Cumulatively the bills address the state’s ongoing water pollution from nitrates, lead, PFAs, commonly referred to as “forever chemicals,” and runoff from new construction projects or agricultural fields.   

Some water conservation groups have criticized the $10 million price tag attached to the package as  just a drop in the bucket, given the cost to begin treating the state’s lead and nitrate issues alone is estimated at more than $1.5 billion. 

Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, co-chair of the task force, stressed the package is “only a start,” and called for the creation of a standing committee on water quality issues and a permanent clean water fund to continue protecting the state’s water sources and citizens’ health.

“If this is the last thing we do in the Legislature (on this topic) we have failed. If this is the last thing we do in the Legislature we have failed,” repeated Shankland. 

Bills now headed for the Senate for approval include: increasing funding for county conservation officers and changes to the state’s nitrate contamination grant program. 

Currently, the state spends $9 million annually to fund one or two county conservation officers in each of the state’s 72 counties. The proposal increases funding to $12.4 million. County conservationists are often referred to as the “boots on the ground,” or the direct point of contact between farmers and the county. 

They are tasked with preventing soil erosion and nutrient runoff by working with farmers to, among other things, apply for grants or other financial assistance to create land management plans. 

Another bill makes changes to the state’s well contamination grant program so that property owners who do not own livestock but have contaminated well water can apply for grants. Right now, only farmers with livestock can apply. 

In other business, Foxconn is again a topic before the Legislature. Due to the slower than anticipated pace of construction, the village of Mount Pleasant approached lawmakers in December to request an extension for the construction of a fire station to accommodate future service needs. 

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The village is using funds from the Foxconn tax incremental district to fund the new station.

With the manufacturing facility not slated to open as quickly as anticipated, there is not a need for a fire station, yet. The bill passed the Assembly along party lines, with Republicans agreeing to extend the deadline for the fire station’s construction from 2025 to 2032.

Rep. Jonathan Brostoff, D-Milwaukee, equated the decision to corporate welfare. Vos responded by saying Democrats have been hoping for failure since the deal to bring Foxconn to Wisconsin was launched under former Gov. Scott Walker. 

Walker signed one of the largest tax incentive deals ever to bring the company to the state, offering the company $3 billion in exchange for 13,000 jobs. In the past two years, Foxconn has reduced the size of the LCD display panels it said it would build and in 2018 it did not meet the job threshold to qualify for state money.

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