La Crosse and Eau Claire counties will have non-binding referendum questions on their ballots to push for clean water protection. (Photo: JT Cestkowski)
La Crosse and Eau Claire counties will have non-binding referendum questions on their ballots to push for clean water protection. (Photo: JT Cestkowski)

Referendums Seek to Pressure State Government to Act

Voters in two Wisconsin counties will have the chance to make their voices heard on the issue of water quality in the upcoming spring election.

Eau Claire and La Crosse counties are the latest to add non-binding referendum questions to their ballots. The effort is designed to apply pressure to the state government, and specifically Republicans in the Legislature, to get them to enact policies to protect drinking water. Lawmakers are not required to vote on non-binding questions.

“Should the State of Wisconsin establish a right to clean water to protect human health, the environment, and the diverse cultural and natural heritage of Wisconsin?” the referendums ask.

The effort is being led by the River Alliance of Wisconsin, a water quality advocacy group.  

Both Eau Claire and La Crosse are grappling with PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), a family of thousands of chemicals that have been linked to health conditions including cancer and low birth weights, contaminating their drinking water.

PFAS were used in a plethora of household products, such as nonstick pans and raincoats. They were also used in firefighting foams that were frequently used at airports.

People living on French Island near the La Crosse Regional Airport have had their drinking water contaminated to such a degree that the state is now shipping bottled water to the neighborhood.

The referendum questions are one of the few ways available to voters to push Republicans to take action given that legislative districts are so gerrymandered as to make elections in many districts almost predetermined.

“(The proposal) was passed unanimously by the Groundwater Advisory, Parks and Forest, and Administration Committees,” said Eau Claire County District 10 Supervisor Nancy Coffey. “Passing this county resolution will show elected officials and stakeholders that clean water must be addressed.”

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR)  is currently considering a series of regulations designed to limit the amount of PFAS in drinking water. The department’s governing board voted to approve the first of the measures at a meeting on Wednesday.

Republicans in the Legislature have previously blocked PFAS regulations from taking effect. It remains to be seen if they will allow the new slate of controls.

Clean drinking water in Wisconsin is also threatened by aging lead pipes in many communities and nitrate contamination predominately in rural areas.

Similar referenda passed overwhelmingly in Marquette, Portage, and Wood counties during the spring 2021 election.The questions will go before voters on April 5.