Ensuring Clean, Drinkable Water through the State Budget

In the upcoming months, the state government will be working on the 2021-2023 state budget. Voicing our opinion begins now, as we need to hit the ground running to let Governor Evers and the state Legislature know what our priorities are. These include clean air, dealing with climate change, public land issues, public transportation, and the focus of this blog: clean water. 

Every Wisconsinite should be able to turn on their tap and know the water coming out is safe to drink and cook with. Unfortunately, that’s now the case right now.  Here are some of the things we’re asking for in the budget in order to help move us in that direction. The following items are in no particular order. 

Lead Pipe Service Replacement

Lead poisoning is a serious problem. It can "cause delays in growth, behavior and create learning challenges" for children. Children are exposed to lead mainly through consuming lead-based paint, paint dust, (often seen in older houses) and drinking water from lead-pipes. In the era of COVID-19, the issue is even more serious. Children are at home more often, which could lead to more exposure (though data on lead poisoning for 2019/2020 has yet to be released). Furthermore, blood lead testing has declined, as families are unable to take their children to checkups as often as they used to. This leaves many children untreated. Black children are especially affected by this. Half of poisoned children are Black despite them only making up a fifth of the tested children. This is an immediate and urgent problem that needs to be dealt with. As a result, we are asking that the budget includes $40 million to fund the replacement of lead service lines. This was attempted in the 2019-2020 budget, GOP but lawmakers voted to remove it from the budget. However, their objections did not seem to be focused on the efficacy of such a program. Rather, it was focused on the fact that much of the money would go towards Milwaukee, whether the program should be financed through taxpayer money, and whether it should be a state or locally run program. 


PFAS Protection and Testing

Numerous areas in Wisconsin have concentrations of PFAS (Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances) well above the EPA’s health standard--no more than 70 parts per trillion (ppt) and the state standard--no more than 20 ppt. Some areas have reached concentrations of up to 202,000 ppt. Exposure to PFAS could potentially impair the immune system, affect the growth in babies and children, increase the risk of certain types of cancers, and more. At the moment, research pertaining to how PFAS exposure affects COVID-19 patients is limited. For a more in depth discussion of PFAS, click here. Given its prevalence in Wisconsin and its negative health effects, we are asking Wisconsin to set aside funding to test all the water utilities in the state. Testing will enable us to determine which areas are contaminated and treat them. This is not a new concept. Michigan started the trend of extensive testing 2 years ago. Colorado, Kentucky, and Arizona have carried out similar projects. We are also asking the Legislature to fund the programs that were created in the Wisconsin PFAS Action Plan, a ‘roadmap’ to address PFAS pollution finalized by the Evers Administration last fall. Check out our petition advocating for strong PFAS regulations here


Well Compensation Grant Program Improvements 

Well contamination is an issue all too common in Wisconsin. For instance, some estimate that about 10% of Wisconsin's private wells are polluted with nitrates. A study from 2013 tested low income residents’ wells and found that almost half “tested high for at least one contaminent.” A study in southwest Wisconsin found that over a quarter of wells tested were contaminated with nitrate pollution and/or bacteria.

We need increased funding to ensure that our residents are drinking safe water. Given the health risks associated with contaminated wells (for instance, high concentration of nitrate in one’s blood can lead to blue baby syndrome in babies, increased chance of birth defects, increased chances of thyroid disease and colon cancer, and more), we need to do more to ensure our neighbors are drinking clean water. One way to help is by increasing funds for the Well Compensation Grant Program. 

According to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the grant program “provides funding to eligible landowners or renters to replace, reconstruct or treat contaminated private water supplies that serve a residence or provide water to livestock.” This program is good, but can be even better. Currently, to be considered eligible, a family cannot make more than $65,000 per year. We are asking that the eligible income is raised to $100,000, as proposed in recent legislation- Assembly Bill 789 and Senate Bill 724. This would ensure that everyone who needs assistance can receive it, we are also asking that $800,0000 is set aside for the program in the budget. This would be an increase from the previous budget which only set aside $200,000. 


Increased Funding For Conservationists 

Conservationists play an important role in protecting Wisconsin's water and land. They oversee and implement projects designed to reduce water pollution, ensure that waste management activities are up to technical standards, and other tasks varying from county to county. As a result, we are asking the government to support them by increasing their funding to $12.8 million. 


Increased CAFO Fees

Wisconsin can raise funding for these projects by increasing fees for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). Currently CAFOs who possess water pollutant discharge elimination system permits pay an annual fee of $345. This money goes towards funding for the DNR and the general fund. In the past, Governor Evers has attempted to raise this fee to $660 and require "CAFO owners to pay $3,270 to operate the farm." The $3,270 would have been paid as they renew their permit every five years.


Governor Evers’ Draft of the Budget 

Recently, Governor Evers released his draft of the budget, and a transcript of his Biennial Budget Message can be found here. Governor Evers did a good job of addressing water-related issues in Wisconsin. His draft includes funding for replacing lead service lines, statewide testing PFAS, a municipal grant program to test and remediate PFAS on a local level, well compensation, and conservation staffing. Furthermore, he supports increasing the annual fees for CAFOs as well as administering an application fee for new CAFOs. Our next focus is to make sure that the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) keeps these items in their draft of the budget. The JFC reviews the government’s budget and makes changes as they see fit. This means that they can remove any of the aforementioned pieces from the governor’s proposed budget. Since the JFC’s draft is what will ultimately be debated and voted on in the legislature, it is important that we make sure they keep these items. 


Do you want to help us? 

Are you interested in helping us advocate for an environmentally friendly budget? Sign up to volunteer for the state budget committee here!



By Mike Rehani, Executive Committee member and Water Team member, Sierra Club Wisconsin Chapter