Environmental, agricultural groups see nitrates legislation as important step forward

Wisconsin State Farmer
Ag, environmental partners see nitrates bill as positive step in water quality journey.

Four environmental and agricultural groups, working as partners to bring about long-term solutions to Wisconsin’s water quality issues, cheered the signing of legislation on April 8, 2022, today aimed at reducing nitrates in rural wells, a move they hope will build momentum for broader efforts. 

The bipartisan bill, signed by Gov. Tony Evers as 2021 Wisconsin Act 223, creates: 

  • A pilot program that provides grants to farmers implementing new practices to optimize the application of commercial nitrogen.
  • A crop insurance premium rebate to farmers who plant cover crops, a practice that improves soil health and reduces infiltration and runoff.  
  • A hydrogeologist position at the UW-Madison Division of Extension to develop groundwater resource information, such as soil depth-to-bedrock maps that help farmers tailor cropping practices. 

“This legislation is a positive, practical step forward, one that will spur innovation and empower more farmers to prioritize groundwater protection,” the groups — Clean Wisconsin, the Dairy Business Association, The Nature Conservancy in Wisconsin, and WI Land+Water — said jointly.  

“We thank Representative Joel Kitchens and Senator Rob Cowles for championing the legislation, and we credit lawmakers in both parties as well as Governor Evers for recognizing its importance and doing the bipartisan work necessary to make it a reality.” 

“We hope this action signals a long-term commitment by state leaders to significantly change how Wisconsin approaches drinking water protection and farmer support,” the groups said. “We look forward to continuing to work with the Legislature and administration on this critically important issue.” 

The new programs and position were among pieces of a comprehensive budget blueprint proposed a year ago by the groups, which formed a working partnership to be a catalyst for bold policies and investments that provide for clean water and resilient farms in Wisconsin. 

Scott Laeser

“While modest in scale and scope, Act 223 will help communities, researchers and farmers work together to combat widespread nitrate pollution problems," said .Scott Laeser, water program director for Clean Wisconsin. "We look forward to working with decision-makers to implement the cover crop and nitrate pollution reduction programs in the bill and to advancing additional, bolder actions to combat Wisconsin’s most widespread groundwater pollution problem. Act 223 is one step down a long path toward delivering on Wisconsin’s clean drinking water promise.”

Amy Penterman, president of the Dairy Business Association says Wisconsin farmers understand the leadership role they can, and do, play in shaping solutions to the state’s complex water quality challenges.

Amy Penterman

"Farmer-led conservation programs and projects are growing in number and ingenuity around the state with the help of our environmental partners and other collaborators," she said. "This legislation will accelerate that activity. We also realize this is a piece to a much larger puzzle the state must invest in to achieve long-term success — clean drinking water and economically sustainable farms.”

Elizabeth Koehler, state director for The Nature Conservancy in Wisconsin says the bipartisan work on the nitrate legislation clearly shows the importance of agricultural and conservation communities working together for healthier soils, cleaner drinking water, and tackling climate change with powerful natural solutions like planting cover crops.

Elizabeth Koehler

"We are pleased that, even in today’s trying political climate, Wisconsin’s leaders are willing and able to work across party lines for science-based solutions to environmental challenges,” Koehler said.

Not only does this legislation deliver important resources toward clean water and resilient farms in Wisconsin, but it also proves they are bipartisan issues, Matt Krueger, executive director of WI Land+Water.

"Let’s use it as a roadmap for doing more good and necessary legislation to make Wisconsin a great place to live, and to farm,” Krueger said.

Matt Krueger

More about the law

  • Nitrogen optimization pilot program at the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection through which grants of up to $50,000 will be awarded to farmers to implement strategies that optimize the application of commercial nitrogen. Farmers must collaborate with a University of Wisconsin System institution, such as the Division of Extension. 
  • Crop insurance premium rebate of $5 per acre to farmers who plant cover crops. The program will be funded with $400,000 per year starting in the second year of the biennium.
  • Full-time hydrogeologist position at the Geological and Natural History Survey at the UW-Madison Division of Extension. The position will develop groundwater resource information at the county and local levels, and work to assist local governments, industries and the public to interpret and use the information.