We have a water crisis in Wisconsin.
More than 20,000 households in our state are subject to lead-contaminated drinking water. Another 20,000 households are believed to be at risk for arsenic contamination.
More than 90,000 households are affected by unhealthy nitrate levels. A third of our private wells have tested positive for pesticides. Eighteen percent of private wells are at-risk for E. Coli and other bacteria.
Forty-two communities have radium-contaminated water sources. Twenty percent of tested wells in southeastern Wisconsin have unsafe levels of molybdenum. And the state has the highest strontium levels in the country.
For years, Wisconsinites have been at increased risk for obstacles to brain development, cancer, infant mortality, reproductive issues, disease, rickets, bone deformities, and joint, gastrointestinal, liver and kidney problems – all as a result of poor water quality.
These dangers were exacerbated and prolonged throughout the past administration, as Wisconsin politicians deregulated wells and wetlands, prevented important pollutant research and standards, and failed to adequately fund groundwater protection.
For too long, politics has forced our state government into inaction, jeopardizing our environment and our health. But, fortunately, that’s starting to change.
In his State of the State address earlier this year, Gov. Tony Evers declared that 2019 would be the year of clean water in the state of Wisconsin. And, almost immediately, the state legislature followed suit, creating a bipartisan task force to propose new solutions to the water crisis.
New funding for local well projects, new research on water pollutants, new credit trading systems and more are all being proposed, earning support from both sides of the aisle. For the first time in years, what used to be a solely Democratic priority is seemingly becoming a bipartisan priority … almost.
We have an opportunity to make real progress on water pollution and to tackle one of our biggest shortcomings as a state. But recently, some state Assembly leaders have threatened that progress with politics.
The current budget proposal calls for $70 million in funding for fighting water pollution; $40 million of that funding would go toward replacing lead pipe service lines, starting the process to save thousands of households from water contamination.
On the surface, this investment appears to be a perfect step in the bipartisan effort to stop water pollution, but majority leaders in the state Assembly are threatening to reject efforts to remove lead pipes, because a majority of funding could go toward Milwaukee County.
One legislator even said that it wouldn’t be “fair” for tax dollars from his district to go toward removing lead in Milwaukee. This is troubling, and this is political.
For decades, Milwaukee has been the target of partisan attacks, with politicians attempting to separate Milwaukee and its residents from the rest of the state.
It’s a classic example of rural vs. urban, us vs. them politics. We shouldn’t allow our elected officials to paint the concerns of those in Milwaukee as anything different or less important.
The county is home to about 54 percent of lead-contaminated service lines in the state. Milwaukee schools have 183 fountains with lead levels above 15 ppb; 10.8 percent of tested children have elevated lead levels, a rate four times higher than in Flint, Michigan. That number is even higher among black children, who exhibited a rate of 13.2 percent.
We’re spending billions on a Foxconn facility in Racine County. And we’re planning to spend $31 million on shipbuilding grants in Marinette County. The idea that our state is responsible for these projects, but not on providing clean drinking water to Wisconsin children (because they’re from Milwaukee), is wrong.
We have a responsibility to end the water crisis in our state. And, for the first time in a long time, we actually have the opportunity to act on it. But that responsibility includes every Wisconsinite endangered by water pollution, regardless of their district or their ZIP code.
We have to address agricultural pollution in Portage. We have to address PFAS chemicals in Marinette. We have to address stormwater management in Mount Pleasant. We have to address well regulation in Waupaca. And, yes, we have to address lead contamination in Milwaukee.
We have to come together to solve this statewide problem, even if it conflicts with our old, shortsighted political tropes.
LaFollette is Wisconsin's Secretary of State; opinions are his own.