Ag, environmental groups announce to partnership to address water quality

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
The Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association, The Nature Conservancy, Dairy Business Association and Clean Wisconsin have come together to form a partnership addressing water quality in Wisconsin.

The Dairy Business Association, Nature Conservancy, Clean Wisconsin and Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association have announced a new partnership to ensure water quality and farm viability through sustainability practices.

The initiative, which is so far unnamed, includes promises to work with state legislation and farmers across Wisconsin to make policy recommendations and ensure accountability. Speakers from each group cited previous conflicts between the groups, but there's a determination to come together despite their past differences and work on a common goal of clean water for everyone.

Tom Crave, president of the DBA, said the organization is committed to making change and calling on lawmakers and other major decision-makers to join the initiative too. He said the investment and focus on the issue will be worth it in order to help communities thrive.

Dairy Business Association President Tom Crave

"We all want and need clean water. We also want and need our strong agricultural community to be successful," Crave said. "This will take an investment, a significant investment of funding, collaboration, focus and commitment, but there's too much at stake not to move forward."

Crave said this initiative first found its roots two years ago, not long before Governor Tony Evers declared 2019 as the "Year of Clean Drinking Water." He said DBA didn't want to be "on the outside looking in" and wanted to be a part of the solution. He mentioned producer-led watershed groups across the state are already doing the important work that this initiative wants to make the standard.

Clean Wisconsin president and CEO Mark Redsten said water issues are urgently demanding cooperation from all stakeholders. He said he has seen the impacts of unsafe drinking water in rural areas himself and with science improving, we should be taking control of our water quality.

"These water challenges really demand innovative solutions and better cooperation from all of us," Redsten said. "As science improves and our understanding of the scope and the magnitude of Wisconsin's drinking water problems become more clear, so too has our urgency for increased action."

Elizabeth Koehler, director of The Nature Conservancy, said the organization will be providing funding and support for staffing and scientific research on local, regional and national levels, including working with the National Corn Growers Association. She also said this initiative will ensure a thriving economy.

Elizabeth Koehler is Wisconsin state director of The Nature Conservancy.

"The Conservancy's involvement in this clean water initiative brings together our core work of land and water protection, and our more recent work with agriculture, to make sure that we all have access to clean water, and that we do it in a way that ensures that farmers and our agricultural economy continue to thrive," Koehler said.

WLWCA executive director Matt Krueger said his group has witnessed soil erosion for nearly 70 years, and while there have been improvements recently, it's not enough. He said it's not about politics, but about addressing problems and finding their solutions through environmental innovation. Communities simply can't survive without quality drinking water, he said.

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"In the absence of clean and safe drinking water and viable farms, our towns and communities cannot survive," Krueger said. "So in this moment, we have a choice as to whether we continue the status quo and hope that by continuing down the same path, things will eventually turn around, or we come to the table, do the hard work rolling up our sleeves, finding common ground and working towards solutions."

Matt Krueger

Krueger added that part of the initiative hopes to improve the nonpoint source pollution program, which he said has never had proper funding or oversight. NSP, which is runoff that picks up pollutants from the ground and deposits them into bodies of water, is a leading cause of bad water quality in the state according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

However, Krueger said there is still a lot of work to do in determining the partnership's specific recommendations to lawmakers, and putting a price tag on the efforts will be even harder.

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"There is no question that when we sit down and we look at all these different facets of what we're talking about and we put a price tag to it, it's going to be significant and I think we all know that," Krueger said. "But I think we all know that the price of inaction is going to be more significant, and I think we're already starting to see that across the state."

Clean Wisconsin's Scott Laeser, who is the director of their water program, said top priorities for the initiative include groundwater mapping, expanded well testing and a larger overall push for funding in water quality programs and research in order to detect when wells need repairing or replacing as well as detecting the sources of contamination.

"We need to see a much bigger investment in clean drinking water to ensure people can trust the water coming from their tap," Laeser said. "Every Wisconsin citizen has a right to clean drinking water, and right now, too many citizens don't have it. We all need to invest in efforts to get them access to that clean drinking water as soon as possible."

Mark Redsten

Laeser said the initiative will seek both public and private sector funding, acknowledging that the water quality issue has suffered from underinvestment for a long time, and that the issue does not take all costs into consideration, like the medical costs for people who have been injured or sickened by poor drinking water.

The DNR should also focus on improving the farm permitting system, said John Holevoet, director of government affairs for DBA. He said the agency's concentrated animal feeding operation permitting should be improved to ensure farms are meeting conservation and water quality standards, perhaps by changing how farms qualify for the program. He said many farms often avoid becoming big enough to become a CAFO because of how "intimidating" the permitting process is.

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"Our main focus on driving more participation in that program is through improving the program itself and making it more efficient. There are many farms who, right now, have made the conscious choice to hover right at the limit for what would be acceptable in terms of animal units before qualifying for CAFO status," Holevoet said. "And the reason they make that choice is because the program is intimidating to them, and also they're concerned about the new sort of regulatory cliff they would face."

Holevoet said engagement with state lawmakers starts immediately, calling it an "overdue" discussion. He said while many ideas for improving water conservation and quality have floated around the ag and environmental communities, many of them have never been realized when they should have been.

While funding may be an issue for the initiative, Holevoet also said there are economic benefits to joining it, like improving the future viability of your farm. He said DBA is also researching ways to create new revenue streams through conservation practices.

"Last (legislative) session, we also passed a nutrient trading bill that might provide a new revenue stream for some farms. Organizations like the farmer-led watershed groups, and perhaps others of this group, might partner with (them) to find a new revenue stream for those engaged in agriculture," Holevoet said. "There are tangible examples of how this is not just good for the environment, but can also help farmers' bottom lines."

Alex Madorsky, associate director of government relations at The Nature Conservancy, said more farmers should be following the producer-led watershed group model to make innovation and conservation more widespread. Madorsky also noted that his organization has already invested $1 million in these kinds of projects and non-profit groups will find investment in them to be more attractive following this partnership.

"(The Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection) ... is a partner in that and we know that there is a positive feedback loop," Madorsky said. "As we continue to invest and work together, conservationists and agriculture on these projects, it makes them more appealing for other nonprofits to invest in in terms of healthy soils. It's a good investment."