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.”
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 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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.