The EPA needs to keep Wisconsin’s drinking water safe
by Elizabeth Ward, originally posted on June 26, 2016
Wisconsin’s water problems are as vast and deep as our lakes, rivers and groundwater aquifers.
Before the current administration, Wisconsin was viewed as a leader in protecting its citizens from contamination to lakes, streams and drinking water. Despite the growing stories of people not being able to drink their water, lakes and rivers drying up, potential lead contamination and more, the Legislature and attorney general have continued to take steps to weaken the state’s ability to prevent waters from being contaminated or overused. This is particularly troublesome in light of the Legislative Audit Bureau’s report on how poor a job the Department of Natural Resources is doing to ensure safe drinking water.
When the Legislature should have been working to protect the health and safety of the people of Wisconsin, it instead tried to limit the DNR’s ability to appropriately manage water to ensure that one person’s actions don’t harm their neighbors. In the past two sessions, the legislature has tried to prohibit the DNR from considering “cumulative impacts” or all factors (including the effect of other wells on the same water resource) when making decisions on permits for wells. The outrage over the proposals led to the bill dying in both sessions. In order to short-cut the legislative process, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) asked Attorney General Brad Schimel to issue an opinion about the authority of the DNR to make these decisions.
In May, when Schimel issued his opinion, he went even further, potentially removing the DNR’s ability to protect our air and water. Schimel’s decision severely limited the considerations the DNR can take when issuing permits. Given the nuances and specifics of every project the DNR has to consider, this is devastating. The DNR needs the authority to make decisions based on specific projects such as rural vs. urban development, location near a waterway, the way an operation runs, other very local considerations, etc. The DNR has said that it will abide by Schimel’s opinion regarding high-capacity wells.
Further evidence that the DNR is not doing its job came on June 3 when the Legislative Audit Bureau released its report on the DNR’s water permitting program, the program that protects waters from contamination from industrial, municipal and factory farm pollution. The report is devastating. In the last 10 years, the DNR has issued a notice of violation only 33 times out of the 558 times it should have — 94% of the time there was no action. Additionally, despite the DNR rule to inspect a factory farm twice every five years, this inspection never exceeded 48% since 2005.
Also, turnover of permitting staff has increased from 6% a decade ago to almost 20% last year, and it takes at least two years for a newly hired person to become proficient and five years for a new person without relevant experience. This means, on average, the DNR is losing staff before they can reach the level of experience and expertise we want them to have to protect our waters. Even if the state increased the funding and incentives, staff would not be properly trained in time to ensure adequate permitting.
Wisconsinites deserve to know that when they turn on the faucet, the water is clean and safe to drink. The state can no longer ensure this. In October, Midwest Environmental Advocates sent a formal petition to the Environmental Protection Agency asking the EPA to review these and other ways that the DNR is not properly managing Wisconsin’s water, as required under the Clean Water Act and other federal laws.
EPA stepping in to take over a state’s water program is unprecedented in recent history. But we are left with no choice. We face contaminated water issues across the state. In response, the attorney general and Legislature are doubling down on plans to do nothing to address it, and a damning audit has been issued that shows a lack of expertise and retention within the DNR to address these issues.
If that isn’t enough rationale for the EPA to step in, what is?
Elizabeth Ward is conservation programs coordinator for the John Muir chapter of the Sierra Club.