MADISON - Bills from a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers are aimed at improving Wisconsin's water quality, especially when it comes to nitrate and salt pollution.
Sen. Rob Cowles, R-Green Bay, is an author on two of the bills: one expanding the program that helps residents replace contaminated private wells, and another that helps watershed groups address pollution.
He said it's important to address Wisconsin's water quality issues and ensure that the state's waters are healthy for drinking and recreation. He said the well compensation bill and the producer-led watershed bills are looking at the "big picture" of water issues.
"If we get these done, we're making some progress in an area that needs progress," he said.
Another bill, targeting the amount of road salt entering bodies of water, was authored by Sen. André Jacque, R- De Pere.
The bills have bipartisan support from Republicans and Democrats alike, who are hoping to see water quality issues addressed, after the bill targeting the well compensation program and the watershed bills died in previous sessions.
Here's what the bills would change.
Preventing Wisconsin's freshwater from getting saltier
One bill aims to protect water quality by curbing the amount of road salt washing into Wisconsin waters.
Jacque proposed a voluntary certification program in which private companies that apply de-icing salt could learn best practices for clearing snow and ice without causing harm to rivers, lakes and streams. Once certified, they — and the businesses they contract with — would be shielded from slip-and-fall lawsuits resulting from ice and snow.
Salt has long been used to reduce slippery road conditions in Wisconsin and other states with chilly winters, but awareness is growing about the harmful impacts of too much of it ending up in freshwater.
In toxic amounts, it can kill aquatic plants and animals, corrode pipes and make drinking water taste salty. Fifty-one rivers and one lake in Wisconsin are considered chronically impaired by chloride, one of the elements that make up salt, according to DNR data. And even in those that aren’t yet impaired, the pollutant is building up. Lake Michigan, for example, has become nearly eight times saltier than it was in the 1800s, according to a 2021 study.
In a December internal report, DNR staff wrote that Wisconsin is on an “unsustainable” path of road salt usage. Advocates say that understanding more about how much salt to use and when to use it can go a long way to fixing the problem. For example, just one coffee mug of salt can adequately de-ice a 20-foot driveway or 10 sidewalk squares.
“Our freshwater is a selling point for our communities and we need to keep it that way, because once salt enters a watershed it’s hard to remove it,” Jacque told the Journal Sentinel.
In 2013, New Hampshire became the first state to pass a law protecting snow removal companies from lawsuits provided they followed best salting practices and kept record of them. Minnesota has a state-led certification program whose participating organizations have been able to reduce their salt use between 30% and 70%, according to the program website.
Wisconsin Salt Wise, which offers classes for public and private road maintenance workers on how to calculate the precise amount of salt needed to keep pavement safe, consulted on the bill, along with the DNR. State Rep. Elijah Behnke, a Republican from Oconto, is the bill’s Assembly sponsor.
Grants would help landowners replace water wells contaminated with nitrates
Another bill would expand the state's well compensation program for landowners or renters looking to replace a well contaminated with nitrates that serves a residence or livestock. To qualify for the grant, a household cannot make more than $65,000 the previous year, and funding is discounted from the applicant for every dollar made over $45,000, according to the DNR.
Nitrate is a contaminant that mostly comes from manure or fertilizer but can also originate from septic systems and other sources.
Studies suggest that drinking water with elevated levels of nitrate over a sustained period can cause birth defects, thyroid problems and colon cancer. Pregnant women and babies are the most vulnerable. The contaminant has been associated with a condition called blue baby syndrome, which reduces the amount of oxygen in a baby’s blood
Under the new bill, eligibility would be expanded to any well used three months of the year and expands eligibility to wells contaminated only by bacteria in addition to nitrates.
The bill would allow more people to access help when their well is contaminated, which is a positive step forward in addressing water pollution, said Peg Sheaffer, the director of communications & development for Midwest Environmental Advocates.
"Expanding eligibility is a good thing," she said.
One issue Sheaffer pointed to was that the income restriction is especially limiting, because replacing a well can be costly without aid, even for families making more than $65,000 a year.
"We want to help people who are the neediest first," Cowles said. "Then we can consider raising the amount, but it would be difficult to get that done right now."
This bill is separate from a program introduced by Gov.Tony Evers last summer, which set aside $10 million of federal coronavirus aid to help fund the replacement of contaminated wells. That fund is also available to residents struggling with PFAS contamination, something the current bill does not address because "forever chemicals" are not currently regulated in groundwater.
More money for farmer-led watershed groups to promote land conservation
A third bill aims to expand the amount of funding available to farmer-led groups across the state that evaluate how different land conservation practices affect local water quality.
The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection started doling out funds in 2016 to a small number of groups of farmers committed to protecting their watersheds, which are land areas in which rain and snow that falls eventually drains to nearby waterbodies. Planting cover crops or switching to no-till farming can help protect those waters, but implementing new practices costs money.
As the watershed program has grown in popularity and the number of groups involved has expanded, funding hasn't kept up. This year, for example, 45 groups requested more than $1.5 million collectively from DATCP, which was only able to grant $1 million.
If the bill passes, it would allow the groups to apply for some Department of Natural Resources grants as well as DATCP grants.
The model has been successful because farmers are inclined to trust other farmers, said Chuck Anderas, associate policy director at the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute who coordinates the Iowa County Uplands Watershed Group in southwestern Wisconsin.
In 2021, DATCP's progress report on the groups' work reported that increased conservation practices prevented an estimated 124,000 pounds of phosphorus and 182,000 tons of eroded soil — pollutants that can wreak havoc on water quality — from leaving farm fields.
But money has gotten tight. Each group is capped at an award of $40,000. It's typical to not receive that much, Anderas said.
"Then you just have to adjust down your plans for the year, or try and find funding from foundations or other sources," he said.
The push for expanded grant funding points to a bigger question about what the program needs to continue to be successful, said Matt Krueger, executive director of the nonprofit conservation organization Wisconsin Land + Water. That could include things like more technical and administrative assistance so that participating farmers can focus on farming, for example, or better monitoring of water quality outcomes.
"Everybody really likes it, and agrees it's valuable and useful, but I think we need to assess from a full landscape view: What does it take to support this program?" Krueger said.
When asked if he was concerned about the DNR funding pot running dry with more applicants, Cowles said the Legislature could elect to add more funding.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: These 3 bills in the Legislature aim to tackle Wisconsin water quality