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Tony Evers (copy)

In his State of the State speech to lawmakers last month, Gov. Tony Evers declared 2019 the year of clean drinking water. Evers says his proposed budget will call for allowing state officials to borrow nearly $70 million more over the next two years to combat water pollution and replace lead pipes.

As Gov. Tony Evers prepares to propose borrowing nearly $70 million to address water contamination in Wisconsin, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, on Monday announced the 16 members of a bipartisan water quality task force.

Rep. Todd Novak, R-Dodgeville, will serve as chair of the task force, with Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, as vice-chair. The task force includes Republicans and Democrats from the state Senate and Assembly.

"The goal is to take input from everyone; stakeholder groups, individuals and local officials," Vos said in a statement. "Every important solution starts with robust conversations." 

Novak and Rep. Travis Tranel, R-Cuba City, requested the task force's creation earlier this year following the release of a report detailing groundwater contamination in private wells in southwestern Wisconsin. The task force will "make recommendations on assessing and improving the quality of surface water and groundwater."

On Sunday, the Associated Press first reported that Evers will include proposals in his budget to allow the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection and the Department of Natural Resources to borrow nearly $70 million over the next two years to tackle groundwater contamination and lead pipe replacement.

In his State of the State address last month, Evers declared 2019 "the year of clean drinking water in Wisconsin," promising to designate a position at the Department of Health Services to oversee efforts to improve water quality throughout the state.

According to a state Department of Health Services study, about 40 percent of Wisconsin households rely on private wells as their water source. A 2013 study found that 47 percent of wells tested in a specific program contained contaminant levels above a groundwater standard. Another recent study of 301 private wells in Iowa, Grant and Lafayette counties found that 42 percent exceeded federal standards for bacteria or nitrate.

The state also has at least 176,000 lead service lines connecting public water mains to homes, according to an estimate from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Under Evers' proposal, DATCP could borrow $10 million over two years (an increase of $3 million) to fund grants for farmers who build infrastructure that reduces water pollution from agriculture. 

The DNR could borrow $40 million to issue forgivable loans to local governments to cover up to half the cost of replacing a lead service line. According estimates from the governor's office, the funds could replace about 16,000 of the state's lead service lines.

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The DNR could also borrow an additional $25 million to clean up contaminated areas of concern in the Milwaukee and St. Louis rivers, and could fund four new positions to implement new water quality standards in the basins of the Wisconsin, Milwaukee, Rock and St. Croix rivers.

Evers' budget will also propose $4 million in borrowing (an increase of $300,000) to fund grants for local governments that build infrastructure to reduce stormwater runoff and $6.5 million (an increase of $350,000) to fund grants for local governments that build infrastructure to reduce water pollution. 

Additional funds would be available to fund studies on runoff management and to provide education and outreach for farmers.

Wisconsin Conservation Voters government affairs director Jennifer Giegerich praised Evers' proposals and called for lawmakers to support them.

"For conservation voters across Wisconsin, it’s always been clear: every person in our state must have clean, safe drinking water. Period. It’s time for us to unite and solve this problem — for us, for our kids, and for their kids," Giegerich said in a statement.

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.