WATERTOWN — Gov. Tony Evers announced plans Wednesday to create new limits on farm field runoff designed to keep nitrates out of drinking water.
The Democratic governor is directing his administration to begin drafting rules for soils in parts of the state where contamination is most likely.
The move comes after Evers declared 2019 the “Year of Clean Drinking Water” and proposed $125 million in increased spending and borrowing in his budget to protect water quality. The Legislature removed several of Evers’ proposals and he ultimately signed a budget that included $48 million in new funding, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
About 1.7 million people in Wisconsin rely on private wells for drinking water, and the Department of Health Services estimates at least 1 in 10 Wisconsin wells has high levels of nitrate, which is considered hazardous, especially for pregnant women and infants.
According to a 2018 legislative report from the state’s Groundwater Coordinating Council, nitrate is Wisconsin’s most widespread groundwater contaminant and is increasing in extent and severity.
“Obviously we need to do better,” Evers said at a news conference in Watertown on the banks of the Rock River. “Our farmers are showing us we can change the way we farm.”
Farm fertilizer and manure are the main sources of nitrate pollution found in thousands of drinking water wells, though septic systems are also a source. The new guidelines will dictate how farmers can apply those nutrients to fields.
Wednesday’s announcement kicks off a 30-month rule-making process involving the departments of Natural Resources and Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection as well as academic researchers, agriculture and conservation groups.
Wisconsin Conservation Voters and Clean Wisconsin praised the move, saying it will improve health and offer hope to thousands of households with contaminated wells.
“This announcement is a major step to protect public health and make clean drinking water a reality for many families without it,” said Scott Laeser, water program director for the environmental group. “Nitrate pollution is something we can start addressing now, and we’re glad to see the governor take this important step.”
State Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, said half the wells in some parts of her central Wisconsin district have unsafe levels of nitrate.
Replacing all the state’s contaminated wells would cost $446 million, according to the Groundwater Coordinating Council report.
“We know that this is a costly issue when it comes to repairing wells,” Shankland said. “At the end of the day, it’s far cheaper to prevent contamination altogether than it is to have to pay over and over again to have to clean it up.”
Republican leaders in the Legislature did not respond Wednesday to requests for comment.
The announcement comes just days after Evers signed an executive order creating a new position to combat lead poisoning in drinking water.
Last year, the DNR adopted new rules for animal feedlots in eastern Wisconsin counties where shallow bedrock makes groundwater especially vulnerable to contamination from manure. Those rules, which restrict the ways farmers in 16 counties can spread manure, were aimed at reducing bacterial contamination.
But nitrate affects a much broader swath of the state, particularly in a horseshoe-shaped area across the south and extending up to Marinette County in the northeast to St. Croix County on the Mississippi River.
DNR Secretary Preston Cole said the rule-making effort will focus on the areas most at risk, including southwestern Wisconsin, where a recent study found 42% of wells exceeded the federal standards for bacteria or nitrate.
“I’m confident we can do this while strengthening Wisconsin’s agricultural innovation and conservation network,” Cole said. “It is time to get to work.”
Brad Pfaff, who leads the state’s agriculture department, said farmers value clean water and will play a role in shaping the rule.
“Many farmers are already helping to lead the way,” he said.
Wisconsin Farmers Union president Darin Von Ruden said water quality is a high priority for his group, which encourages members to follow nutrient management plans.
“We want to do what we can as a farm organization to help protect the water and keep nitrate levels at a level that’s not going to hurt anyone,” Von Ruden said. “We’re certainly hoping we get a seat at the table.”