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Who’s Doing the Talking at Wisconsin’s Water Quality Hearings?

Jul 02, 2019

 

 

Wisconsin is at a clean water crossroads. For years, families around the state have been calling on their elected officials to take meaningful steps to address widespread contamination of drinking water. Earlier this year, lawmakers appeared to acknowledge the significance of the problem when they announced the creation of a task force to gather information from the public and from technical experts. 

The first hearings took place in Lancaster and Janesville in May, followed by Mauston and La Crosse in June. Task force members have by now heard many hours of invited testimony from the likes of the WI Pork Producers Association, WI Farm Bureau, WI Corn Growers, and WI Liquid Waste Carriers Association, all of whom talked at great length about their commitment to improving water quality. In addition to industry groups, public health officials and environmental organizations such as MEA have been invited to provide information about the extent of the problem and the toll it has taken on families around the state.

Members of the public have turned out to share their personal stories, but in fewer numbers than many of us had hoped. Based on data collected by county and state health officials, we know that thousands of Wisconsin families are at risk when they turn on their taps. So why haven't ordinary citizens been showing up in greater numbers to demand immediate action by elected officials?

Earlier this month, MEA Executive Director Kimberlee Wright directly addressed this issue during her testimony at the La Crosse hearing. Kim pointed out that there are social, political and economic factors that play a role in keeping the very people who are most affected by Wisconsin's water crisis from participating in these important conversations.
 
Nitrates, bacteria, pesticides, lead and emerging contaminants like PFAS all pose serious health threats, but for every person who is aware of the the risks, there are thousands of people who aren't. We must adequately fund our state agencies, Kim noted, and make resources available to local governments to ensure that everyone at risk knows how to keep their family safe.

Even among those who do understand the risks, too many believe that showing up won't make a difference. It's not difficult to understand why a person might feel this way. As Kim pointed out in her testimony, citizens who show up must balance work and family with the time and expense of traveling to a hearing only to be forced to wait through 4 and sometimes 5 hours of industry testimony before being allowed their 2 minutes at the microphone. 

Citizens deserve better opportunities for meaningful participation in the decision-making process. Legislators should address these obstacles by holding hearings at a time that is more convenient for average working people and by doing away with a format that gives priority to special interest groups at the expense of citizens.

For 20 years, Midwest Environmental Advocates has been committed to supporting citizens around the state who have stepped up when government has failed to act. We have seen how ordinary people, working together and continuing to show up, can create meaningful change. Despite the flaws of the hearing process, we urge citizens to take advantage of the opportunity to make their voices heard at the remaining task force hearings and to hold government accountable for protecting our water.

Wisconsin's waters belong to all of us, and we would do well to keep in mind something that MEA Board Member Arlen Christenson has always been quick to point out: Underlying every act of the Legislature and the DNR is the fundamental fact that they act, not as owners, but as trustees for the true owners: We the People.