MADISON, Wis. — The Wisconsin Assembly passed $10 million package of 13 bills designed to combat groundwater contamination on Tuesday, with lawmakers calling it a good start but not enough to address the persistent and growing problem.
Ten of the 13 bills passed unanimously. Despite the broad support, it's not clear whether they all will pass the Republican-controlled Senate which has yet to schedule them for a vote.
"This is the beginning, not the end," Democratic Rep. Katrina Shankland, who served on a water quality task force, said Tuesday."If this is the last thing we do in the Legislature, we have failed."
Republican Rep. Todd Novak, of Dodgeville, agreed.
"The challenges with water quality did not start overnight, they started decades ago, and these bills are just the beginning," he said. "Clean water is not a Democrat or Republican issue, it's a state of Wisconsin issue."
The bills passed by the Assembly contain the recommendations from a water quality task force called by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos to address growing concerns about groundwater contamination in the state. There is increased tension between environmentalists and farmers over the contamination of wells, the spreading of manure, the growth of large animal confinement facilities and the use of fertilizers.
The measures tackle the issue from several angles, including expanding conservation efforts, bolstering research and education efforts, and improving state laws and regulations.
More needs to be done to prevent contamination as well as cleaning up pollution, said Democratic state Rep. Chris Taylor, of Madison, during debate of the bills in the Legislature's budget committee last week.
"We have got to be much more aggressive," Taylor said. "We've got to stop the manure from running into people's water in the first place and that is where (Republicans) have failed."
She called the proposals "little baby steps."
The proposals would create a new water policy office; increase the number of county conservation workers; increase grants for owners of wells contaminated with manure or fertilizer to rebuild or replace them; increase money to study water quality issues; add a state agriculture staff member focused on grazing techniques for livestock to allow grasses to replenish; and make grants available for farmers who grow crops that require less fertilizer.
Time is running out for the Legislature to pass the bills. The Senate was not scheduled to vote on the measures Wednesday and it planned to be in session just one day in March before quitting for the year.
Any measures that pass both houses must be signed into law by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who has made improving water quality a priority. Novak said he was optimistic Evers would sign the bills.
Under Evers, the state Department of Natural Resources has started studying water quality in southwestern Wisconsin, educating residents about the dangers of lead poisoning, creating restrictions on manure and fertilizer in areas prone to groundwater pollution and is developing standards for pollutants found in industrial products known as PFAS. They are also known as "forever chemicals" because they don't break down naturally and can accumulate in the body. Studies have shown the chemicals can increase the risk of cancer, weaken the immune system and affect cholesterol levels, childhood behavior and the ability to get pregnant.
One bill the Assembly passed Tuesday creates a state-run program to more quickly collect and dispose of firefighting foam, one of the sources of PFAS.