Wisconsin has had a proud history of protecting our natural resources. Wisconsinites including John Muir, Aldo Leopold and Gaylord Nelson have been national leaders in the movement to protect our planet. In the past, Wisconsin has recognized the value of its water resources. Through the Public Trust Doctrine, the state declared that all navigable water was “forever free” and held in trust. Over time, that public trust has been broadened to include protected rights to water quality, recreational activities, and scenic beauty.
Today, protection of our water resources is under attack by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Since 2017, the EPA has targeted 95 environmental regulations to be rolled back for the express purpose of empowering commercial exploitation at the expense of our environment. This month, a new EPA rule change becomes operational that will dramatically weaken the landmark Clean Water Act of 1973 and threaten our water resources.
Wisconsin’s water resources are arguably our most important resource. Water is the heart and soul of our state. Today Wisconsin is facing a variety of threats to our lakes, streams and drinking water. Our water is threatened by contaminants including lead, nitrates, phosphorous and long-lasting chemicals such as PFAS. Lakes and rivers are threatened by invasive species including blue green algae, zebra mussels and many others. Climate change has resulted in widespread recurrent flooding.
Instead of stepping up to improve the protection of our water resources, the EPA has changed how they define what waters they will protect with a new regulation which was announced in December 2019, finalized in January and becomes operational in March 2020. The EPA has shrunk the scope of the Clean Water Act to include only navigable lakes, rivers and tributaries and the wetlands adjacent to those waters. Excluded from protection are wetlands which are not directly adjacent to navigable waters, and streams which run intermittently. According to Chris Wood, the president and chief executive of Trout Unlimited (an anglers advocacy group), this change in the EPA’s scope will dramatically impact the country.
“Trout Unlimited’s research suggests that more than six million miles of streams — half the total in the United States — will now be unprotected by the Clean Water Act,” because they flow only intermittently such as with the spring snowmelt or after rainfall. More than 42 million acres of wetlands —about half the country’s total — will no longer be protected because they are not immediately adjacent to navigable waterways. He continues, “This will make it easier to pollute streams and fill in wetlands that safeguard our water supplies, reduce flood risks and provide for healthy fish and wildlife habitat. And it will make it harder to provide sensible oversight of oil and gas projects, pipeline construction and major housing development.”
One would hope that our state government would step into the breach to protect our water. Unfortunately, in the past decade environmental protection and related scientific investigation has been under attack in Wisconsin. The DNR budget and scientific resources have been reduced; 18 key environmental scientist’s positions were eliminated. State environmental regulations have been weakened. Despite the reinstatement of science-based leadership in the past year, the DNR budget and scientific staff remain in a weakened position. The state legislature remains hostile to environmental protection.
As citizens, we need to push back against this attack on our water resources and environmental protection. We need to demand clean drinking water. In Lake Mills and the surrounding area, we live in the midst of wetlands, which act to absorb floodwaters and filter out pollutants before they enter our streams, rivers, lakes and drinking water. We need to demand that wetlands be protected from dumping of pollutants and protected from developers who wish to fill in wetlands. While development is important, it needs to be regulated; it shouldn’t be done at the expense of our water resources. We need to speak out, and to demand that our Wisconsin and national leadership protect our health and safety by protecting our water. We need to demand that this new regulation be eliminated.