Access to clean drinking water is the top issue facing Wisconsin, according to a new survey of voters in the southwest region, where a high number of private wells are contaminated.
A majority of respondents said they would favor candidates who support more regulation to protect drinking water, and two-thirds believe water quality will be an issue in the next general election, according to the study conducted for the Environmental Law & Policy Center’s Action Fund.
Safe, clean drinking water was ranked very important by 82% of voters and fairly important by 7%. That’s more than infrastructure, health care or public education.
The survey of 601 registered voters in five southwestern counties found most voters opposed additional regulation in general.
But respondents were strongly supportive of specific measures such as a freeze on feedlot expansions, requiring more disclosure of how those operations spread manure, or allowing counties to adopt stricter local standards to protect drinking water.
“It’s the difference between an abstract issue … which has become a politically supercharged issue and when voters — Democrats, Republicans and independents — are asked to address specific questions,” said Howard Learner, executive director of the nonprofit group, which has offices in Chicago and Madison. “There’s very strong support for targeted regulations to protect drinking water supply.”
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The results were released Tuesday just hours before the Department of Natural Resources policy board was scheduled to vote on whether to allow the agency to start crafting new restrictions on manure and fertilizer use in certain parts of the state as part of an effort to curb drinking water pollution.
When told that groundwater in southwestern Wisconsin is vulnerable to pollution from manure and fertilizer, 80% of respondents agreed that was a reason to put stronger regulations in place.
But 58% also said it would be better to invest in research and technology, even if it would take longer to address the problem. Respondents were evenly split on the question of whether additional regulation could hurt the farming industry.
In response to a different question, 58% said they would support regulations similar to those adopted last year for 15 counties in the northeastern part of the state.
The poll, which has a 4-point margin of error, was conducted in November by Selzer & Company and included respondents in Crawford, Grant, Iowa, Lafayette and Richland counties.
More than 15 percent of 840 randomly selected private wells sampled between November and April had nitrate levels above federal drinking water standards.
“What’s remarkable here is that the top issue of importance for southwest Wisconsin voters is safe clean water,” Learner said. “That’s disappointing as well because we have a problem that needs to be solved.”