Natural resources

As Gov. Tony Evers reminded us, “roads and bridges are only a small part of the infrastructure challenges facing our state.” Investments in water quality sustain the natural infrastructure of our state. They are absolutely vital.

Water is Wisconsin’s most precious natural resource. It is to this state what gold once was for California, what oil still is for Texas. Water defines, enlivens and enriches this state.

Forget about Minnesota, with its “10,000 lakes.” Wisconsin has more than 15,000 lakes, 43,000 miles of rivers and, according to NOAA's Office of Coastal Management, 820 miles of Great Lakes shoreline. “Wisconsin also has 5 million acres of wetland,” according to a Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine report from several years ago. “And that just scratches the surface. Below our feet Wisconsin has a buried treasure — 1.2 quadrillion gallons of groundwater. It is hard to grasp just how much water is stored underground unless you look at how much we use every day.”

Unfortunately, as Dave Strifling, the director of the Water Law and Policy Initiative at Marquette University Law School reminded us, “Wisconsin has its share of water problems, too, including many lead water service laterals, widespread well contamination, and battles over diversions from the Great Lakes.”

This is one of the reasons why Gov. Tony Evers has declared 2019 as “The Year of Clean Drinking Water in Wisconsin.”

Evers made that designation in order to highlight some of the challenges that academics and environmentalists have been sounding the alarm about. As the governor noted in his State of the State address: “According to the Department of Health Services, 1.7 million Wisconsinites depend on private wells for water, and 47 percent of these wells do not meet acceptable health standards. Meanwhile, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, we have an estimated 176,000 lead service lines across our state. Removing lead service lines could cost over $2 billion. But Pew Charitable Trusts estimates that for every $1 we spend on replacing lead drinking water lines, we will see a 133 percent return on our investment in higher lifetime earnings and better health outcomes.”

To that end, Evers announced just weeks after taking office that he would be signing an executive order to designate a person at the Department of Health Services “to take charge on addressing Wisconsin’s lead crisis and to help secure federal funding for prevention and treatment programs.”

Now, with his 2019-2021 biennial budget plan, Evers proposes to make safe drinking water “a top priority in Wisconsin (by) authorizing nearly $70 million in bonding to address water quality, from replacing lead service lines to addressing water contamination across our state.”

The governor has developed a fiscally and socially sound budget, which would accept federal dollars to expand Medicaid, hike aid for public schools, and make desperately needed investments in the renewal of the state’s infrastructure.

But, as Evers reminded us, “roads and bridges are only a small part of the infrastructure challenges facing our state.” Investments in water quality sustain the natural infrastructure of our state. They are absolutely vital.

Legislators must not allow the inevitable partisan wrangling over this budget plan to undercut the commitments that the state’s new governor is making in this regard. Republicans in the Assembly and Senate will air plenty of differences with the Democrat who is now in charge. But water quality need not be a divisive issue.

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It was good news when Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said he will form a water quality task force following reports of contaminated wells across southwestern Wisconsin.

After a November survey by the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Geological Survey of 301 private wells in southwest Wisconsin’s Iowa, Grant and Lafayette counties determined that 42 percent of those wells exceeded federal standards for bacteria or nitrates, people in southwest Wisconsin expressed valid health concerns. State Reps. Travis Tranel, R-Cuba City, and Todd Novak, R-Dodgeville, asked for the creation of a water quality task force. Vos, R-Burlington, embraced the idea.

We commend Vos for his serious response to a serious issue. He and his colleagues can and should maintain this responsible approach as part of the budget deliberations.

We recognize that Evers and Vos will be on opposite sides of plenty of budget issues. We know that Democrats and Republicans have many budget debates ahead of them. But they should agree to agree on water quality.

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