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Lake Kegonsa has the worst water quality in the Yahara chain of lakes. Pictured is the lake’s small beach at La Follette County Park in Stoughton.

STEVENS POINT — It’s a feel-good story, right? Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin suddenly wake up and take an interest in water quality after decades of denial.

“Better late than never,” people from across Wisconsin who’ve been dealing with water quality issues for years might say. But forgive average folks if they doubt the sincerity of so-called elected leaders who tagged along in silent consent while former Gov. Scott Walker marched the state away from any meaningful progress on water quality, and the environment in general, for almost a decade.

Maybe Republicans really are concerned about water quality in a state where thousands deal with contaminated wells, public and private, and from lead pipe contamination in urban areas. Or maybe they read the results of last November’s sweep of state offices by Democrats and realized people have had enough. Either way, if they’re sincere about this sudden interest, good.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has appointed a task force to study water quality issues, which may be a step in the right direction, even though citizen activists in places like northeastern, central and southwestern Wisconsin say we’ve studied this enough and we know what to do. Many say it’s time for action, and all that’s lacking is the public will and a meaningful investment of public and private dollars.

Yes, maybe we can trust the recent converts. A few in the Republican Party, including state Sen. Rob Cowles, R-Green Bay, have shown a real interest in water quality. But some of his colleagues are already giving us reasons to doubt them. Last week, Republican leaders Vos and Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, who co-chairs the Joint Finance Committee, pulled out the old dog whistles in reaction to Gov. Tony Evers’ budget proposal to borrow $40 million to replace lead pipes around the state. Too much money for those people in Milwaukee, they said. This is an old foil, pitting rural communities against urban communities, despite plenty of proof that Milwaukee generates tax payments that fund an array of services in communities across the state. You'd think they would have learned something about lead from Flint, Michigan, but apparently not.

The truth is, the Evers budget falls short of addressing water quality issues. Lead in municipal drinking water is horrible, but so is well contamination from agricultural runoff oozing into public and private water supplies across the state. Fixing this will require many millions of dollars spent over multiple years. States like Minnesota have addressed these issues with dedicated funding for water quality, but so far, Wisconsin is all talk and little action. Maybe that will change.

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In the absence of state action, citizens across the state have tried with limited success to take matters into their own hands. Citizen activists in several counties have taken steps toward more restrictive local ordinances addressing nitrate contamination and other water quality concerns. Nitrate contamination from agricultural and residential fertilizers has gotten nothing but worse over the years, and alarming research is showing serious health effects, including cancer, associated with nitrates in drinking water.

Water quality is of interest to the whole state, but it is also compellingly local. So, the sudden interest in water quality is welcome, but elected state officials need to realize failing to act will be viewed as just that: failure. This issue isn’t going away, at least not until we take steps to address the concerns citizens have clearly voiced.

Bill Berry of Stevens Point writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times.

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