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Water quality continues to be a major discussion in Wisconsin this year.

On Wednesday, members of Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality put together by state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos met with about 70 individuals at a public hearing held at UW-Stout.

The task force of 13 Assembly members and four state senators were joined by local legislators Sen. Patty Schachtner, D-Somerset, Sen. Jeff Smith, D-Eau Claire, Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, and Rep. Warren Petryk, R-Eleva, who are not members of the committee.

A total of 13 hearings were held during the past few months with Menomonie being the penultimate stop. On Thursday, the task force was scheduled for a hearing in Superior. Other locations where hearings were held included La Crosse, Lancaster, Madison, Janesville, Racine, Green Bay, Marinette, Mauston, Stevens Point and Tomahawk.

The task force was created to gather information and make policy recommendations to improve the quality of water in Wisconsin, according to the task force’s website.

The mission of the task force is to identify the best practices for testing and data collection, determining the sources and causes of contaminants impacting water quality and consulting with stakeholders to assess current practices to manage runoff. The task force also aims to investigate solutions to protect a healthy and stable supply of water and to study best practices for designing wells and septic systems to safeguard a healthy water supply.

Representatives from state agriculture and local conservationists and others addressed the committee before public comments were accepted.

Dunn County conservationist Daniel Prestebak gave an overview of conservation programs in the county. Prestebak said Dunn County has about 400 miles of impaired streams and waterways.

No-till and cover crops conservation practices have increased in the county, Prestebak said, but conservation reserve land has decreased from 20,000 acres to 4,000 in the past five years. He said rotations featuring three crops are needed for healthy soil. Rotating plantings of corn and soybeans is effective, and more small grains need to be mixed into yearly planting schedules. Prestebak said soil health and then water quality can be improved if there was a larger market for those small grains.

“Healthy soil is the only way we are going to clean up our water and protect our groundwater,” Prestebak said. “Dunn County has embraced this. We have adopted healthy soil as a mechanism to clean up our water.”

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Prestebak asked the committee to consider more staff in land conservation, UW-Extension and the National Resource Conservation Service to work with farmers. He suggested increasing in length of Watershed Protection Grants for producers and additional resources for staffing and groundwater testing.

Water health and drinking water quality are a big concern for Dunn County. Dunn County Health Department Director KT Gallagher said 60 percent of county residents get their drinking water from private wells. With no requirements for testing, Gallagher said many people aren’t aware whether their water contains contaminants. Resources to cover the costs of private well testing could provide incentive for more residents to test their water.

“There is no systematic well testing so folks don’t know their own risk when it comes to contaminants in their drinking water,” Gallagher said.

The Wisconsin Dairy Alliance and Dairy Business presented to the committee detailing the impact Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations have on water quality. While CAFOs are highly regulated, they only include around 27 percent of all cattle in the state, the alliance said. Many smaller farms aren’t required to follow regulations only in place for larger operations.

“To solve this there needs to be an act of compliance for all sources not just some of them,” Cindy Leitner, president of the Wisconsin Dairy Alliance, said.

John Holevoet, director of government affairs for the Dairy Business Association, asked the committee to consider increasing resources for soil mapping and groundwater testing. Holevoet said there needs to be more promotion for manure irrigation and use of vegetated treatment areas surrounding farms. One way to support farmers taking steps to meet new standards, Holevoet said, is to make it easier for farmers to get approval for manure-treatment systems and manure digesters.

Michael Engleson of the Wisconsin Lake Partnership, Eric Olson, director of the UW-Extension Lake Program and Dick Lamers and Rod Olson of the Red Cedar Watershed Conference also presented to the task force. Jim Swanson director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and UW-Stout professor Scott P. McGovern concluded the invited speakers.

Prestebak said there isn’t an easy or short-term solution. Counties with less water quality problems still need the resources to maintain that level of quality.

“There is resource needs in every county and those counties that aren’t competitive (for grants) because their water is in good shape they need to protect it and keep it that way,” Prestebak said.

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