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YORKVILLE — With Lake Michigan to the east, Lake Superior to the north and the Mississippi River to the west, there should be an abundance of available water for citizens but it seems to be Wisconsin is overflowing with communities that are struggling to find clean drinking water.

Elected officials are now listening.

Gov. Tony Evers declared this year the “Year of Clean Drinking Water” and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, organized a bipartisan task force on water quality.

According to the task force’s website, the goals are to:

  • Identify the best practices for testing and data collection, measuring water quality in different parts of the state, and types of soil.
  • Determine the sources and causes of contaminants impacting water quality.
  • Consult with stakeholders to assess current practices to manage runoff as well as suggestions to improve these efforts.
  • Investigate remedies that will protect a healthy and stable supply of water for residents and industry.
  • Study best practices for designing and constructing wells and septic systems to safeguard a healthy water supply.

On Thursday, the task force met in Racine County, first to tour the water treatment plant in Burlington and then to hold a public hearing at the county’s Ives Grove office complex in Yorkville to hear testimony from experts and from dozens of citizens.

Vos was among the state officials who attended.

After nearly four hours of testimony from area experts, those members of the public who wanted to speak had their chance and many of them spoke about the urgent need to address water-quality issues.

Cassie Steiner lives in Madison but made the more than two-hour drive to Yorkville to speak for three minutes during the public comment portion of the public hearing. Steiner told the task force that she grew up in the City of Burlington and her grandfather was a dairy farmer.

Steiner said the floods in recent years have caused contamination and damaged business and tourism in Burlington.

“Our government, each of you, not prioritizing funding for these known problems in our water creates an immense cost that private residents and businesses are forced to bear,” Steiner said. “Speaker Vos, you asked for solutions to problems that don’t require funding, and I hear that. But if our house had a leak in the roof I would spend money to repair the leak. And I can’t think of anything more important than the health of all of us and our clean water.”

Racine County Board Supervisor Monte Osterman, who is a member of the County Land Conservation Committee and a member of the Wisconsin Land and Water Board, was one of those who testified to the task force about the need to increase funding to county conservation programs.

“These are the hands-on groups that have boots on the ground, they got hands in the water, these are the people that are implementing and pursuing the plans that are actually putting conservation on the ground,” Osterman said.

Currently, Osterman said, there is $9.4 million in the state budget for water conservation programs that is to be spread throughout the 72 counties in Wisconsin. He advocated that future funding should be bumped up to $12.4 million.

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“But the real number, honestly, it’s $16 million,” Osterman said. “That’s what really will make it work well.”

Osterman also advocated for providing easier ability for organizations to become nonprofits so they could secure funding from the federal government or the private sector and argued that urban watersheds are “handcuffed” because of the constraints and requirements to qualify, which should be re-evaluated.

“These are the things that can be done that cost relatively little,” Osterman said. “There are fees that can be associated with consumption and usage that would more than fund every single aspect of our conservation initiatives … Spending now keeps you from spending more later.”

Solutions without spending

The idea of spending more money was not something Vos wanted to hear.

“Your solutions are mostly focused on asking for more money,” Vos said to Osterman. “I’ll be honest to say, between my County Board time and my state service, if everything that I funded was guaranteed to save money in the long run would have happened, we wouldn’t even need taxes … everybody thinks their plan saves money.”

Vos said state legislators “have the reality that we only have so much money to spend.”

“What are specific things that don’t cost money that this task force could also recommend as opposed to figuring out ways to dole out taxpayer money?” Vos asked, adding there could be a way to work with developers that might be building on wetlands.

Dave Giordano, executive director of the Root-Pike Watershed Initiative Network, said the state could find a way to require developers to construct wetlands as part of their projects.

“If you have a parcel that has wetlands on it, the first reaction is ‘Don’t mess with the wetlands,’” Giordano said, adding a developer could modify the parcel that’s being built on to include wetlands in another area or municipalities could invest money that is paid by the developer in land that is in a floodplain area.

Osterman pointed to the Foxconn Technology Group development in Mount Pleasant as an example of a private business, which disturbed the wetlands that were present before building, possibly doing better for the local environment in the long run.

“What we’re going to end up with at the end of that project is going to be better than what was there anyway,” Osterman said. “Even though development has intruded on those wetlands, what we will end up with, what is being planned and looked toward, is going to be better than what was happening anyway.”

“Speaker Vos, you asked for solutions to problems that don’t require funding, and I hear that. But if our house had a leak in the roof I would spend money to repair the leak. And I can’t think of anything more important than the health of all of us and our clean water.” Cassie Steiner, Madison resident and Burlington native

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