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Wisconsin farmers are applying more manure and fertilizer these days. In addition, soil erosion has increased, reversing earlier progress. When soil erodes, it carries nutrients and chemicals on its way to ground or surface water. PHOTO BY AGRI-VIEW

It seemed fitting that during the last week of ex-Gov. Scott Walker’s war on our environment, we should learn that an alarmingly high percentage of private wells tested in southwest Wisconsin are contaminated with bacteria and chemicals.

It’s also more proof that Wisconsin needs new funding and new rules to address water quality problems that have oozed across the state. The time is ripe to make this the era of clean water for all. In fact, it’s overdue, based on the latest news.

As reported last week by Steven Verburg of the Wisconsin State Journal, the first systematic study of well water in southwest Wisconsin found bacterial and chemical contamination at rates as bad as and possibly worse than areas in northeastern Wisconsin targeted by new state water protection rules. About 42 percent of 301 randomly selected wells tested in Iowa, Grant and Lafayette counties exceed federal health standards for bacteria that can come from animal or human waste or for nitrate and other toxic fertilizer residues.

The southwestern Wisconsin well tests are bad. Same goes for wide swaths of central Wisconsin, where levels of nitrate and other contaminants have steadily grown, causing some counties and municipalities to consider taking actions in lieu of state indifference under Walker. Well contamination is so bad in parts of northeastern Wisconsin that even Walker couldn’t ignore it. He signed legislation that will require new manure-handling rules for that area once the rules are finalized.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, hardly a leader on the environment, was quick to the draw after the latest news broke, announcing he would appoint a task force to study the issue. But for the thousands of citizens impacted by tainted water for years, the time for study is over. They want action. This isn't complicated. Gov. Tony Evers can and should take the lead, moving forward with new mechanisms to assure all citizens have safe drinking water.

The current blend of state and federal funding to address the continuing degradation of our water quality falls well short of what’s needed. And despite weak claims to the contrary, the evidence is clear that by far the biggest source of contamination is agriculture.

Wisconsin can look to states like Minnesota and Missouri, which have dedicated portions of their sales taxes to help farmers invest in conservation practices that work. Minnesota’s Legacy Fund, for instance, has provided almost $1 billion for clean water work in a decade. Funds come from a three-eighths of 1 percent slice of the state’s sales tax. In addition to clean water, the fund supports other natural resources programs along with arts and culture in the state.

Minnesota’s approach may be a reach for a divided Wisconsin, where clean drinking water somehow became a partisan issue. But it’s time Wisconsin identifies its own innovative path to stem the steady decline in funding for water quality over the past few decades.

While we’re at it, Wisconsin should also beef up its action levels for requiring conservation practices. Minnesota, for instance, requires that farm operations close to municipal wellhead areas take steps to remedy contamination once nitrate levels rise to 5 parts per million in water, half of the federal standard. The program is designed to protect wellhead areas before nitrates and other contaminants reach levels that force municipalities to fund costly treatment options. Let’s remember, too, that contamination of residential wells violates the private property rights of homeowners.

Some will cry “regulation” if our rules are toughened. So be it. Maybe the old standards, or lack of them, worked in another era. But modern agriculture has changed the playing field. In total, Wisconsin farmers are applying more fertilizer and manure these days. Soil erosion has increased, reversing earlier progress. When soil erodes, it carries nutrients and chemicals on its way to ground or surface water.

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While we’re at it, Wisconsin should establish a stewardship certification program for farmers, allowing them to be recognized and rewarded for their efforts. Once again, our neighbor to the west may provide a worthy model with its Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program. Farmers who meet the program’s standards by voluntarily enhancing stewardship practices are recognized as stewards and are guaranteed some measure of regulatory certainty. Nearly 700 farm operations have achieved this status in the four years the program has been in place, and many others are on their way.

A new clean water fund paired with a stewardship certification program would benefit everyone, ushering in a new era of clean water for all.

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

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