Midwest Environmental Advocates is a nonprofit environmental law center that works for healthy water, air, land and government for this generation and the next. We believe that every citizen has the potential to make a difference.

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The Issue
Clean and abundant water is essential for all life. Wisconsin is a state that is rich in water resources, yet too many families lack access to safe drinking water, and too many rivers and streams are impaired. 

What's In Our Water?

  • Nitrates
    Nitrates in Wisconsin' s groundwater come from 3 main sources--agricultural fertilizers, manure, and residential septic systems. It is estimated that 10% of wells across the state have unsafe levels of nitrates. In areas where agriculture is the dominant land use, the percentage of contaminated wells can be much higher. A recent study in rural southwest Wisconsin revealed that 42% of private wells tested positive for unsafe levels of nitrates or bacteria. 
  • Lead
    At least 176,000 Wisconsin homes and businesses receive water from aging lead service lines, including many daycare facilities and schools. Thousands of children in Wisconsin have elevated levels of lead in their bodies. Lead exposure can result in irreversible damage to the brain, kidneys and nervous system. Lead poisoning is a statewide problem that affects families in the cities of Menasha, Milwaukee, Racine, and Watertown and the counties of Buffalo, Green Lake, Pepin, Richland, Rock, and Sheboygan.
  • PFAS
    PFAS (pronounced "p-fass") are synthetic chemicals found in firefighting foams and household goods such as non-stick cookware. PFAS move quickly through groundwater and have been linked to a range of serious health concerns. Communities with known PFAS contamination include Marinette, Manitowoc, Milwaukee, Madison, Baraboo, Sparta and Camp Douglas. The true extent of the problem is unknown, as most public water systems have yet to be tested for PFAS.

Legal Frameworks for Water Protection

  • The Public Trust Doctrine
    The Public Trust Doctrine is a source of legal authority rooted in ancient Roman law and enshrined in the Wisconsin Constitution. It requires government to intervene to prevent the impairment of public waters and their uses. While these uses were once understood to include only access to public waters for navigation and commercial purposes, the public trust is now understood to encompass public rights to water quantity and quality, recreational uses and scenic beauty. Over the last century, state courts have consistently upheld and strengthened this constitutional responsibility to protect Wisconsin’s lakes, streams, and rivers.
  • The Federal Clean Water Act
    The Clean Water Act (CWA) was passed in 1972 to resolve growing concerns over water degradation in the United States. The Act effectively gives authority to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate all pollutant discharges to the waters of the United States. While a national regulatory scheme is in place, the Clean Water Act also allows the EPA to delegate its authority to individual states. Under the CWA, the Department of Natural Resources has been entrusted with the administration and enforcement of Wisconsin’s water pollution permitting program.
  • The Federal Safe Drinking Water Act
    Under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), the EPA sets science-based standards for drinking water to protect public health. While the focus of the law is mainly on public drinking water systems, it also gives the EPA the power to intervene when state and local governments are unwilling or unable to address groundwater contamination that presents an imminent and substantial threat to public health. 

Our Work to Protect Water Quality

Protecting water is at the heart of our work. Since 1999, MEA has used its legal expertise to protect public rights to Wisconsin's waters, to advocate for strong water policies, and to ensure that government is held accountable for protecting groundwater and surface waters. 

February 26, 2018Midwest Environmental Advocates joins groups in the Mississippi River Collaborative to ask the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reject proposed alternatives to establish federal nutrient criteria for the State of Missouri’s lakes and reservoirs. The Mississippi River groups support stronger, more proactive nutrient criteria that protects drinking water, recreation and aquatic life uses, and protects downstream waters.

Opposing Clean Water Rule weakening and delays:  Midwest Environmental Advocates joins nearly 200 groups to sign on to a December 13, 2017 letter urging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency not to delay the implementation of the 2015 Clean Water Rule by two years. The groups also asked the EPA not to weaken the rules through revisions and rollbacks on clean water protections.

Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Great Lakes groups oppose repealing the 2015 Clean Water Rule defining the "Waters of the United States." Midwest Environmental Advocates was one of 69 environmental leaders who signed on to a letter to the U.S. EPA on why the Waters of the United States rule impacts our ability to protect the Great Lakes and their tributaries.

Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Protecting our Great Lakes depends on the positive impacts of robust federal laws. Midwest Environmental Advocates' Kim Wright was among the 31 midwest conservation leaders who signed on to this May 14, 2017 letter to the EPA when the newly appointed EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt, asked for public input on environmental regulation.

Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition to U.S. Congress: Don't cut funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and other valuable investments in our freshwater resources. Midwest Environmental Advocates is proud to be among the over 150 conseration organizations and leaders who signed on to this letter.

MEA to DNR: animal unit limit needed at Richfield Dairy, LLC - On January 17, 2017, Midwest Environmental Advocates submitted comments to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources explaining why an animal unit limit should be reinstated in a draft pollution permit renewal for the Richfield Dairy of Milk Source Holdings, Inc. in Adams County. An animal unit cap in a pollution permit is a practical way for the DNR to limit the source of pollution – in this case, manure waste – produced by an industrial livestock facility. In our comments, we explain how a September 2014 court order in a Friends of the Central Sands/Family Farm Defenders case and two other MEA-involved judicial decisions demonstrate the DNR’s authority to set these limits that may ultimately help to protect area water from pollution associated with spreading manure waste on land. (Attachments 1, 2, 3)

December 6, 2016 Comments on Da Ran Dairy LLC WPDES permit - MEA submitted comments to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources on behalf of the Sustain Rural Wisconsin Network detailing the coalition's concerns with the livestock operation's prior WPDES law noncompliance, an underestimation of annual manure generation, and whether the pollution permit would resolve conditions that led to an October 25, 2016 manure spill.

September 2016 Flint aid via the federal Water Resources Development Act - MEA joined dozens of clean water and clean government organizations to sign on to a September 2016 letter to the U.S. Senate in support of the Senate’s bipartisan version of the Water Resources Development Act that includes which features $100 million to help Flint and other communities improve or replace their aging water infrastructure. A separate letter was sent to the House as the body has yet to take up a water resources bill or enact any measure providing funding for Flint. Groups once again urged Congress at the end of October to act during the lame duck session to fund aid for Flint.

Resources Related to this Issue

Remedies for Parties Affected by Well Contamination

Midwest Environmental Advocates wrote a memo to Wisconsin residents seeking remedies for well contamination including details on the state's remediation and redevelopment program and the well compensation grant program.

Assessing Groundwater Quality in Kewaunee County, WI

Assessing Groundwater Quality in Kewaunee County, WI report by principal investigators Maureen M. Muldoon, University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh and Mark Borchardt, Laboratory for Infectious Disease and the Environment
USDA-Agricultural Research Service and USGS-Wisconsin Water Science Center with co-investigators Randy Hunt, US Geological Survey – Wisconsin Water Science Center; Laura Hubbard, US Geological Survey – Wisconsin Water Science Center; Davina Bonness, Kewaunee County Land & Water Conservation Department County Conservationist / Department Head; Kevin Masarik, UW-Stevens Point Center for Watershed Science & UW – Extension

Kewaunee Groundwater Susceptibility Map

Kewaunee Groundwater Susceptibility Map showing areas of the county that could have groundwater contamination depending on the likelihood of contaminiant release, the type of contaminants released and the sensitivity of the area to contamination to the intensity of contamination and land use.

Kewaunee County Public Health and Groundwater Protection Ordinance

Kewaunee County Public Health and Groundwater Protection Ordinance passed unanimously by the county board on Sept. 23, 2014. Ordinance was sent to a public referendum vote in the spring of 2015, was passed and will be in effect in the spring of 2016.

Sources of Fecal Contamination in Groundwater in Rural Northeastern Wisconsin

Presentation by Mark Borchardt and Susan Spencer, USDA-Agricultural Research Service and USGS Wisconsin Water Science Center, Marshfield, WI; Maureen Muldoon, UW-Oshkosh, Dept. of Geology; Laura Hubbard and Randall Hunt, USGS Wisconsin Water Science Center, Middleton, WI; Davina Bonness, Kewaunee County Land and Water Conservation Department; and Kevin Masarik, UW-Stevens Point, Center for Watershed Science and Education

Inactivation of Dairy Manure-Borne Pathogens by Anaerobic Digestion

Presentation by Mark Borchardt, Susan Spencer, and Spencer Borchardt of the USDA –Agricultural Research Service and USGS Wisconsin Water Science Center, and Becky Larson and Asli Ozkaynak of UW-Madison Biological Systems Engineering

PCA - outline

Petition for Corrective Action - outline of petition

PCA - executive summary

Petition for Corrective Action Executive Summary

PCA - full petition

Petition for Corrective Action - full petition with signatures

CAFO Toolkit: Protecting Your Community From Existing and Proposed Concentrated Animal Feeding Opera

When an industrial animal farm proposes to locate or expand in your community, know the basics of water and air regulations and your property rights. This toolkit covers how to stay informed and participate in CAFO permitting processes.

Community Outreach Toolkit: Supporting the Reduction of Nutrient Pollution in the Mississippi

A toolkit published by the U.S. EPA to assist state and local agencies, watershed and community groups, NGOs and the like in developing communication materials about nitrogen and phosphorus pollution.

The Facts About Nutrient Pollution

A two-page fact sheet from the U.S. EPA regarding the sources, effects and impacts of nutrient pollution in the U.S.

Stormwater Tool-Kit

This 2007 tool-kit provides an overview of stormwater regulation in Wisconsin, including information on what to do if you spot a violation of these laws.

Water Quality Standards for Wisconsin Surface Waters

Natural Resources Code - NR 102 - Water Quality Standards for Wisconsin Surface Waters