State Legislature Reviews Water Quality Task Force Bills

Don Behm and Paul Heinen, WI Green Fire, February 8, 2020

Photo: Rep. Katrina Shankland (right), Democrat of Stevens Point, sponsor of a bill on the well compensation program, speaks Feb. 5 at Hearing of Assembly Natural Resources and Energy Committee in Madison. Sen. Patrick Testin, Republican of Stevens Point (left), is Senate sponsor of the bill.
Photo: Rep. Katrina Shankland (right), Democrat of Stevens Point, sponsor of a bill on the well compensation program, speaks Feb. 5 at Hearing of Assembly Natural Resources and Energy Committee in Madison. Sen. Patrick Testin, Republican of Stevens Point (left), is Senate sponsor of the bill.

Photo: Rep. Katrina Shankland (right), Democrat of Stevens Point, sponsor of a bill on the well compensation program, speaks Feb. 5 at Hearing of Assembly Natural Resources and Energy Committee in Madison. Sen. Patrick Testin, Republican of Stevens Point (left), is Senate sponsor of the bill.


A package of 13 bills recommended by the Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality is making its way through legislative committees at the state Capitol.

It is crunch time in the Legislature, however, as the current session is scheduled to end on March 25 and there is limited time to get bills passed through both the Assembly and Senate. Watch this website for updates.

After holding 14 public hearings across the state last year and listening to hundreds of citizens, the bipartisan task force narrowed its immediate recommendations to the thirteen pieces of legislation estimated to cost a total of $10 million.

Both task force leaders described the package as a first step toward achieving cleaner water.

“This is just a start,” said Rep. Todd Novak, Republican of Dodgeville and chair of the task force. “We wanted to put a package out we could build on next session.”

The $10 million request is “a down payment” on what needs to be spent in the future to ensure all Wisconsin residents are drinking clean water, said Rep. Katrina Shankland, Democrat of Stevens Point and vice-chair of the task force. “We have much more work to do.”

Novak and Shankland spoke Jan. 29 at a forum in Madison sponsored by the Wisconsin Water Alliance, an organization backed by state agricultural producers and other businesses. Video of the discussion can be viewed at the Wisconsin Eye website:

Some of the bills line up with Wisconsin’s Green Fire (WGF) recommendations in Opportunities Now: An Analysis of Priority Issues and Actions for Wisconsin’s Natural Resources 2019-2021 “Agricultural Water Pollution” chapter and other policy papers.

Assembly Bill 790 and its companion Senate Bill 723 would boost annual funding for county land conservation staff to $12.4 million, up nearly $3 million from the current fiscal year.

Sen. Patrick Testin, Republican of Stevens Point and a senate sponsor of the legislation, described county conservation staff as the “boots on the ground” for many state agricultural programs. Testin spoke Feb. 5 at a public hearing at the state Capitol. The water quality task force recognized the role of county conservation staff in projects on individual farms “that prevent soil erosion and runoff of nutrients and pollutants into waters of the state.”

Sen. Mark Miller, Democrat of Monona, said at the hearing that the task force heard “resounding support” for the county staff at all of its public meetings. Both Miller and Testin were members of the task force.

There are two pairs of bills to address nitrate contamination of drinking water.

AB 789 and SB 724 would increase state funding for well compensation grants by $1 million in the next fiscal year. Those grants compensate landowners who are replacing contaminated wells or treating contaminated water from private wells. This legislation also would remove current restrictions that compensate owners of contaminated private wells serving only livestock.

Nitrate is the most pervasive contaminant of Wisconsin groundwater and WGF supports compensating homeowners who have polluted wells.

But that is an expensive fix for the owner and it does nothing to address the source of the nitrate problem, WGF said in a July 2019 report: Nitrates in Wisconsin Waters. “The primary source of nitrate contamination is from nitrogen fertilizer and field applied manure which can leach into groundwater and contaminate water supplies,” the report said. “Wisconsin needs to tackle nitrates at the source.”

AB 796 and SB 718 would spend $1 million to create a “nitrogen optimization pilot program” to establish on-farm projects for at least two growing seasons aimed at using optimal rates of nitrogen from manure and fertilizers applied to crops while reducing contamination of water resources. The state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection would be authorized to award grants of up to $50,000 to agricultural producers for the projects.

WGF supports policies aimed at combatting nitrate contamination of water.

Rep. Joel Kitchens, Republican of Sturgeon Bay and a sponsor of the assembly bill, cited significant health risks of exposure to nitrates in drinking water when he spoke in favor of the measure at the Feb. 5 senate hearing.

Exposure to nitrates affects how blood carries oxygen and can turn skin blue or cause weakness, excess heart rate, fatigue and dizziness, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. Babies are affected more seriously than others.

High levels of nitrates in water may cause birth defects or increase the risk of thyroid disease and colon cancer, the Department said.

The 13 bills proposed by the Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality are expected to be approved by the Assembly in the next several weeks but it is not certain the entire package will pass the Senate before the legislative session ends March 25, according to Novak and Shankland.

While total cost of the bill package is estimated at $10 million, recently revised state revenue estimates show there will be around $450 million more than expected in the general fund next year. The news of a surplus could help to convince senators to adopt the task force package this session, Novak said at the forum.

Assembly and Senate committees are expected to vote on the bills and any amendments by mid-February. Then the Assembly likely will vote on all 13 bills and send the package to the Senate for action. The Senate Majority Leader could schedule full Senate votes on one or more of the bills by March 25.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, Republican of Rochester, appointed the 16-member task force of 12 representatives and four senators in February 2019. Representatives Travis Tranel, Republican of Cuba City, and Todd Novak, Republican of Dodgeville, asked Vos to form a special committee after state scientists reported widespread contamination of private wells in southwestern Wisconsin.

Novak and Shankland released the task force’s legislative recommendations, including the package of 13 bills, at a Jan. 8 news conference in Madison. Read the full task force report here:

The bills have been sent to relevant committees in the Assembly and Senate for hearings and are moving through the process.

Wisconsin’s Green Fire members attended several of the water quality task force hearings held between March and September of last year. At each of the 14 hearings, the task force heard testimony from invited experts as well as the public.

Three WGF leaders – Nancy Larson, Bob Martini and Jimmy Vandenbrook – were invited to speak at the final hearing held Sept. 5 in Superior.

Here is a summary of the other ten bills recommended by the task force:

SB 709/AB 799: Creating a new Office of Water Policy and providing $150,000 in funding and one full-time staff in 2020-21 at the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey. The office would coordinate water policy statewide.

SB 708/AB 794: Providing public comment periods for actions of certain state agencies in establishing groundwater standards for new substances.

SB 715/AB 795:  Providing $850,000 in assistance to farmers for conservation practices.

SB 722/AB 800: Spending $1.15 million for testing, mapping of groundwater and educational outreach.

SB 712/AB 801: Creating Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin across all University of Wisconsin campuses. Spending $2 million in fiscal year 2020-21 for integrated undergraduate programs to address water quality challenges.

SB 717/AB 792: Spending $250,000 to expand the “clean sweep” program to include collection and disposal of firefighting foams containing PFAS, the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances found to be contaminating groundwater in Wisconsin.

SB 711/AB 793: Requiring economic assessments when awarding Municipal Flood Control Grants.

SB 710/AB 791: Delaying sunset of Wisconsin Fund for septic systems until June 30, 2023 and providing Department of Safety and Protective Services with two full-time project positions, funded by program revenue, to review sanitary permit applications and plans.

SB 725/AB 798: Spending $150,000 on biomanipulation – deliberate removal of certain fish species to reduce resuspension of sediment in waterbodies – as part of local water quality improvement projects.

SB 716/AB 797: Prohibiting sale or use of asphalt sealants containing coal tars or PAHs in 2021.


Don Behm retired from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and is a member of WGF’s Communication Committee. Paul Heinen is WGF legislative liaison.

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