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Wisconsin voters’ concerns about pollution in lakes and streams, contamination of drinking water supplies and depleted aquifers are transforming water into a key campaign issue in this fall’s elections, including the race between Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold.
“I can’t remember a time when it (water) was a major statewide political issue,” said University of Wisconsin-Madison history professor John Sharpless, a former Republican congressional candidate.
In Wisconsin, water worries have increased in response to shifts toward large-scale livestock farming and growing knowledge about the threats that lead and other contaminants pose in various regions.
Residents of Kewaunee County and the Central Sands region of the state — two of the areas most vulnerable to groundwater pollution — are demanding answers from politicians who acknowledge they cannot afford to ignore water issues if they want to keep their seats in the 2016 election.
Testing over the past few years has uncovered widespread contamination from bacteria, nitrate and viruses in private drinking water wells in Kewaunee County — some of it linked to the proliferation of large dairy farms known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.
The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism’s Failure at the Faucet series also has found that hundreds of thousands of state residents are at risk of drinking water with unsafe levels of nitrate, bacteria, arsenic, lead and other contaminants.
Sharpless said Wisconsin has not had the type of defining environmental disaster that has driven change in other parts of the country and at other points in history.
“We have had no equivalent to the Love Canal disaster or when Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969,” Sharpless said.
State Rep. Scott Krug, R-Nekoosa, said the move of large dairy interests into his Central Sands district has changed the political landscape for him.
Recent data show the administration of Gov. Scott Walker, who has declared Wisconsin “Open for Business,” has been loathe to hand out fines for environmental infractions. A recent report from the Legislative Audit Bureau found the state Department of Natural Resources failed to follow its own policies 94 percent of the time over 10 years when wastewater treatment plants or large farms violated terms of their permits.
While high-capacity wells have been blamed for drying out lakes and streams in the Central Sands, Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel has issued a formal opinion that Wisconsin officials lack the legal authority to block any well based on drawdown from existing wells.
These moves have sparked sharp criticism by some residents in Krug’s district that Wisconsin’s leaders are not protecting its water resources. Krug acknowledged that because of high-capacity wells, “There are parts of my district where lakes have entirely disappeared.”
Krug has tried to straddle the warring sides, earning awards from the Dairy Business Association, which represents dairy farmers, milk processors and related businesses; and an endorsement in 2014 from the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, which says it is “committed to recapturing our state’s nonpartisan conservation legacy.”
“I think it’s political suicide to not at least acknowledge that there’s issues going on right now,” said Krug, who represents the 72nd Assembly District in central Wisconsin.
Both Democrats vying to unseat Krug are running on platforms to protect the region’s water quality.
Nekoosa school counselor David Gorski said the DNR should allow high-capacity wells or CAFOs only if they “can operate without an adverse effect on the environment. That’s the way it’s supposed to go. The problem is, that’s not what’s happening under the Walker administration.”
Krug’s other Democratic challenger is Russ Brown, an organic farmer from Coloma who will face Gorski in the Tuesday, Aug. 9 primary. Brown said pollution threatens to “cripple” tourism and damage the value of local property, including homes on depleted water bodies such as Long Lake.
For his part, Krug has opposed a plan for the 5,300-animal Golden Sands Dairy in his district because of potential harm to water quality and availability. “It’s time we (Republicans) start working on (water issues),” Krug said.
Elsewhere in the state, constituents and lawmakers face other tensions over the management of water. The DNR and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency held a joint meeting in June in Luxemburg in Kewaunee County to present possible solutions drafted by volunteers and officials to avoid contaminating area wells.
In the audience were two men who will square off in the Nov. 8 election to represent the Assembly’s 1st District: Incumbent Rep. Joel Kitchens, R-Sturgeon Bay, and Democratic challenger Lynn Utesch, a beef farmer and environmental activist from Kewaunee.
Kitchens, a veterinarian and first-term lawmaker, paired up with Krug in 2014 on a piece of legislation that would have created tougher regulations for high-capacity wells in environmentally sensitive areas. The measure never got a hearing. In an interview, Kitchens said it is “virtually impossible” to pass any new laws that would add more regulation in the Republican-run Legislature.
“It (the water issue) affects our areas very directly, mine and Rep. Krug’s, so obviously we have no choice but to talk about it,” Kitchens said. “It’s becoming more and more visible.”
The controversy over water quality has prompted the Walker administration to propose development of new rules that would set stricter standards for manure spreading in areas such as Kewaunee County with shallow soils and fractured bedrock. In proposing the rule, DNR acknowledged that existing statewide regulations do not adequately protect ground and surface water from contamination in vulnerable areas.
But environmental groups, including Clean Wisconsin and Midwest Environmental Advocates, have criticized DNR for pulling back on more stringent rules that had called for limits on controversial liquid manure spraying and other restrictions on CAFOs.
Utesch and other like-minded citizens petitioned the EPA to investigate the contamination in Kewaunee County. An EPA representative told the crowd of roughly 150 in Luxemburg the agency has no authority in the matter.
In an interview, Utesch said that is not good enough.
“This is a public health emergency we’re having here, and there are emergency measures that can be put in place if the Legislature and the governor wanted to actually do something about these issues,” Utesch said.
The Department of Natural Resources told the EPA in late July that in addition to more limits on manure spreading in Kewaunee County, it is also considering shifting resources toward stepped up oversight and enforcement of existing CAFO rules.
“Things are never going to move as quickly as people want them to,” Kitchens said. “You can’t blame people; if they have a bad well they want it right tomorrow. But by political standards, things are moving pretty darn quickly.”
Water quality also has become injected into the U.S. Senate race, as Democrat Feingold tries to win back the seat he lost to Johnson six years ago.
Feingold has blasted Johnson for voting to block a federal rule that expands water bodies protected by the Clean Water Act — such as lakes, streams and oceans — to include connected waters such as tributaries and wetlands. The rule — which Senate Republicans unsuccessfully attempted to kill — is on hold because of a legal challenge.
“Senator Johnson ignored the water contamination crisis in Kewaunee County for too long – even as residents begged for help,” Feingold spokeswoman Amelia Penniman said in an email. “Instead, he sided with the big polluters and called water safety measures ‘ludicrous.’ ”
Johnson’s campaign maintains the Waters of the U.S. rule would give Washington too much control over Wisconsin. Spokesman Brian Reisinger accused Feingold of “siding with the EPA over Wisconsin farmers and small businesses.”
Said Reisinger: “Senator Feingold may not understand that overregulation kills jobs, but Ron Johnson does.”
Coverage of environmental issues by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) is supported by The Joyce Foundation. The nonprofit center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.
Editor’s note: In 2014, two years before he became a political candidate, Lynn Utesch and his wife, Nancy, contributed $500 to the center.