Evers Watertown

(From left to right) Democratic state Rep. Katrina Shankland, Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Secretary Brad Pfaff and Department of Natural Resources Secretary Preston Cole join Gov. Tony Evers in Watertown Wednesday. 

WATERTOWN — Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers is calling on the Department of Natural Resources to look at implementing new standards to safeguard water from nitrate runoff. 

The changes would likely seek to target manure and fertilizer practices in southwestern Wisconsin, specifically Iowa, Grant and Lafayette counties, where well testing has recently occurred under the first phase of the Southwest Wisconsin Groundwater and Geology Study

The administrative rule tweaks, Evers said in an announcement Wednesday at the Watertown Parks and Recreation Department, would help the state take steps to "prevent groundwater from being contaminated in the first place."

He added nitrate contamination in private wells "poses serious health risks to infants and pregnant women."

"So obviously we need to do better and fortunately our farmers are showing us that we can take steps to change the way we farm and take a great big step towards clean water," he said. 

The SWIGG study consisted of two sampling rounds in November and April. In November, the results showed 42% of the 301 private wells tested exceeded standards for bacteria or nitrates, while the April test of 539 wells found 27% exceeded those standards. 

The Department of Natural Resources has recently cracked open the rule — NR 151 — following years of pressure from citizens and environmental advocates to strengthen groundwater standards for the eastern part of the state. The changes, which affect 15 counties, including dairy-farm-intensive Kewaunee County, are aimed at strengthening groundwater protections and targeting manure spreading practices. 

That area of the state has similar karst geology to the southern and western parts of Wisconsin, where thin soil overlays fractured bedrock, conditions allowing pollutants to more easily enter the groundwater. The new language has led some to demand the protections be extended to the opposite corner of Wisconsin. 

DNR Secretary Preston Cole didn't rule out the possibility of applying those same protections to the southwestern part of the state. 

"Should it go in that direction because that's where folks who show up want it to go in that direction, we'll frame it that way," he said. "If not, it's going to be a tighter regime and a tighter area of the state, we'll follow that regime. Again, everyone's in the pool when it comes to this. We respect the public input process, that won't be any different for this rule process." 

The effort comes as Assembly Speaker Robin Vos' Water Quality Task Force is continuing to hold meetings across the state to hear from constituents and weigh legislative recommendations. Evers has also declared 2019 the “Year of Clean Drinking Water."

Working through the state's rule-making process would likely take around 30 months. Cole said it was unlikely the agency would pursue implementing an emergency rule, which carries a shorter timeline, and instead work toward a permanent rule change. 

Environmental group Clean Wisconsin was quick to applaud the announcement, with Water Program Director Scott Laeser saying in a statement the call "shows that Gov. Evers is serious about cleaning up and protecting drinking water in Wisconsin.” 

“The new standards being proposed will offer hope to thousands of Wisconsin residents with nitrate pollution in their private wells," he said. 

Dairy Business Association Government Affairs Director John Holevoet said in a statement that any regulations the state considers "must be science-based and sensible" and should "apply to all of agriculture regardless of the size or type of farm." 

"The only path forward is for regulations to be sustainable both environmentally and economically," he said. "We all want clean water and we all should want a thriving dairy community. Both are achievable.”

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