North central Wis. issues and efforts noted in Speaker's Task Force on Water Quality recommendations

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MADISON, Wis. (WSAW) -- The Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality released its recommendations Wednesday, creating a bipartisan package of 13 bills that would invest $10 million in general purpose revenue towards improving water quality and water quality initiatives in the state.

Rep. Todd Novak, a republican chairing the task force, along with vice chair, democrat Rep. Katrina Shankland from Stevens Point and other members of the task force made the announcement at the State Capitol in Madison.

"Water quality is not a republican or democrat issue, it's a Wisconsin issue," Novak said.

"The taskforce did a really great job at trying to define the playing field, knowing that there are going to be some areas that you know, we're going to be pretty far apart on and really try and work on a playing field that we designated," republican Sen. Patrick Testin told NewsChannel 7, "and came up with some what I think are very thoughtful and sound proposals that I think are going to help a lot of Wisconsinites."

Novak said Speaker Robin Vos has been aware of the task force’s work throughout the process and the package of bills has his support. When asked if the senate majority leader, Scott Fitzgerald is also supportive, Novak said he believed Vos has been talking with Fitzgerald and he is aware of the importance of the issue of water quality.

Testin said when he first learned of the task force, he wanted to join to help ensure both houses of the legislature would be involved. He said along with being the lead author on some bills, he has also worked to keep his senate colleagues aware of the task forces work and will continue that as the bills go through the legislative process. He said he has not had an opportunity to speak with Fitzgerald about his support for the bills.

Shankland told NewsChannel 7 these initiatives will not raise taxes nor take funding away from other department and programs as funds have been allocated in the budget for the purpose of water quality initiatives as part of the Governor Tony Evers’ declaration of 2019 as the year of clean water.

Several bills recognize work being done by organizations in north central Wisconsin and touch a wide array of water topics affecting people in that region. This includes gaps in policy over nitrate contamination, which has been a problem for hundreds of people with private wells in the central sands area of the state, including parts of Portage, Wood, Adams, Juneau, Waupaca, and Waushara counties.

One bill, which gives credit for Shankland’s previous legislative efforts, would revise the Well Compensation Grant Program to address nitrate contamination by increasing the fund by $1 million for next fiscal year, remove the restrictions for compensation when a well is only contaminated by nitrates, and, among other things, provides the DNR with one full-time position for the grant program.

Another bill creates a pilot program to address nitrate contamination, which includes creating another grant this time for agricultural producers, including university entities, “to implement projects, for at least two growing seasons, that reduces nitrogen loading or uses nitrogen at an optimal rate while protecting water quality…”

Several other bills address farming, as it relates to water contamination, and ways to help farmers reach goals of environmentally-friendly practices. This includes a bill that is multifaceted that would provide assistance to farmers for conservation, with recommendations for grant expansions and insurance coverage.

Miltrim Farms was recognized in that bill as being “the first farm in the United States to achieve water stewardship certification from” the Alliance for Water Stewardship program. The bill as it relates to that program would create a new program administrator at DATCP “to provide grants to reimburse the costs for an agricultural producer to apply for a certification of water stewardship from the AWS.”

UW-Stevens Point’s Watershed Science and Education program also was acknowledged in the package for its work in testing, mapping, and educational outreach. One bill would expand on the university’s work by providing $450,000 per year to the program, along with create a hydrogeologist position within the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, among other recommendations.

"Private well owners did not know where to go so they could understand, say they were getting ready to build a home or to buy a home in a certain area, well what's the quality of the groundwater in that area," Brian Sloss, UW-Stevens Point's associate dean of outreach and extension for the College of Natural Resources said.

He explained if that bill would pass, the program would be able to expand their portal so people from all over the state would have the opportunity to easily find the quality of the water in their area.

Another bill would create an office of water policy within the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey. This person would be appointed by the governor and be required to evaluate the current laws and rules, any proposals, and make recommendations about water policy, along with submit a report to the legislature every other year.

Other bills include:
- Increasing funding for county conservation staff, which Testin said he is the lead author of
- Require the DNR to have a public comment period when establishing groundwater standards
- Create a pilot program to address nitrate contamination
- Provide extra funding for the Freshwater Collaborative undergraduate program to help train the next generation of scientists and attract talent by studying the challenges of agriculture management and the challenges of water quality and safety
- Expand the PFAS program so DATCP can collect firefighting foam and either store or dispose of that foam
- Extend the Wisconsin fund for septic systems for two more years, requires the Department of Safety and Professional Services write and distribute the eligibility requirements for the grant program, and fund DSPS with two full-time project positions
- Alter the rules and application process for the wetlands and floodplain restoration grants
- Require the DNR to provide grants to local water improvement groups to conduct projects using biomanipulation or deliberately removing or adding certain fish to reduce phosphorus and nitrogen in water
- Prohibit the Sale or Use of Coal Tar-Based and PAH Sealant Products

"This is the beginning, not the end," Shankland said during the conference. "We have a lot of work to do and I am pleased with the task force's recommendations thus far, looking forward to continuing the work."