The Year of Clean Drinking Water

It is a remarkable question to have to ask: Why do people oppose protecting our air and water? One would think protecting these vital resources would not be a controversial or a political issue. Everyone’s heath and the health of the economy depend on clean water and air. Tourism, agriculture and many other industries must have clean water. You aren’t going to have many tourists coming north to see smog and enjoy “dead zone” rivers and lakes.

Governor Tony Evers is trying to move the state forward on these issues. Will the Republican controlled legislature cooperate? Will the people of Wisconsin support the Governor and push their legislative representatives to support sensible protection and conservation?

Fortunately, we do have historical precedent on our side. In 1960, newly elected Democratic Governor Gaylord Nelson faced the same situation as Governor Evers. Republicans controlled both houses but Nelson was able to get a reorganization of the DNR and ground-breaking legislation to protect the environment. He created a program to set aside land for conservation, expand state parks, and support outdoor recreation (the future landmark Nelson Knowles Stewardship Fund). It was a “green new deal” that made Wisconsin a leader in environmental protection and a destination for tourists. Gaylord Nelson became a national icon and founder of Earth Day. He was successful because of public support for his programs. People made it happen!

Governor Evers has declared 2019 “the year of clean drinking water.” In Wisconsin 1.7 million residents rely on private wells and 47% of those wells do not meet health standards. He is proposing action to clean up the many drinking water problems in the state.

Specifically, he is requesting an additional $1.6 million for a grant program for contaminated private wells (up from $400,000). The program would fund replacement, repairs, or treatment for polluted private wells that serve homes or livestock. A cost sharing option would allow the DNR to cover up to $16,000 in repairs for families below the median income.

Evers is asking for $70 million in additional bonding to fund lead pipe replacement. Lead pipe contamination affects 176,000 homes and businesses. Lead in water causes permanent brain damage in children. Evers estimates removing all lead lines in Wisconsin would cost $2 billion. Milwaukee officials say it would cost the city and residential property owners more than $750 million. Former governor Scott Walker provided only $26 million in loans to communities for this purpose. Bonding would also fund programs for farmers and grants for local governments to reduce water pollution. Cleaning up soil contamination in the St. Louis River (Duluth-Superior) and the Milwaukee River are projects to receive funding.

Under Evers Wisconsin has joined the U.S. Climate Alliance. This is a bipartisan group of governors committed to combating climate change on a state level by implementing the Paris Climate Accord (the one President Trump withdrew from in 2017). Wisconsin is the 21st state to join the alliance ( Governor Evers believes protecting vital natural resources is necessary for a vibrant economy. Combating climate change by reducing carbon emissions is a win-win for the environment and for the economy.

The old-fashioned jobs vs the environment debate is a false dichotomy. Investments in alternative energy creates jobs in addition to reducing carbon emissions, improving health, and building a more sustainable economy. This is the conclusion of a report by the Center on Wisconsin Strategies (COWS). Wisconsin has no fossil fuel resources and generates three-quarters of its electricity with coal and natural gas. Wisconsin spends about $14 billion a year on fossil fuels resulting in the one of the largest “energy deficits” in the country. By moving to renewable sources of energy like wind and solar, much of this money could be retained in Wisconsin. The COWS report suggests transitioning to an electric economy would reduce overall energy consumption, create 160,000 jobs, and increase state GDP by $13.9 billion. In many applications, electricity is more efficient especially when using locally produced electricity. Cleaner electricity would also have health benefits. See “Wisconsin Opportunity in Domestic Energy Production: The Economic and Health Benefits of 100% In-State Energy Production,” at

Clean drinking water was a public health achievement of the 1940s and 50s. Safe private wells replaced unsafe shallow wells, cisterns, streams, and roof run off as sources for rural residents. Municipal public water systems were improved with deep wells, testing, and water treatment plants. In short, government standards, regulations, and assistance worked. Beginning in 1980 we started going backward due to poorly regulated use of chemicals, factory farms, and short-sighted opposition to reasonable regulation of industry. Now Wisconsin has serious problems with contaminated drinking water. Governor Evers recognizes this and is trying to address the problems. But it will take significant public support to make his efforts successful.