MADISON – The state’s top environmental official pledged Tuesday that the Department of Natural Resources will play a more aggressive role in water quality issues, echoing calls by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers that more needs to be done to ensure Wisconsin residents have access to clean drinking water.
DNR Secretary Preston Cole said clean water was the agency’s top issue, followed by chronic wasting disease in the state’s deer population.
The agency has struggled with the deadly deer disease for nearly two decades. Cole promised no quick fixes and said the department is studying effective strategies in other states before it would propose implementing any new strategies.
Separately, Cole said the DNR is planning to replace language on its website written by the previous administration that said climate change was a matter of scientific debate.
Instead, he said, staff will add back wording indicating that humans play a role in rising levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Under former Secretary Cathy Stepp, a Republican appointed by then Gov. Scott Walker, the agency changed several passages that downplayed the role of humans in global warming.
Also, Cole said that DNR would heighten its presence at the Wisconsin State Fair, and is working with other state agencies to that end.
In 2017, the agency sharply cut back its role at the fair, ending a 70-year tradition of the agency having a major exhibit on a 2-acre site on the fairgrounds.
Cole, a forester by training, was named in December by Evers to lead the DNR. In the first few months he has said he will elevate the role of science in decision making at the agency after cuts in science staff were made under Stepp.
Cole comes to the DNR facing a sharply different political dynamic than his predecessors, Stepp and Dan Meyer, who ran the agency under Walker and GOP-controlled Legislature.
That means many efforts, such as cleaning up polluted groundwater and limiting manure as a source of contamination in rural areas, will need buy-in from the Legislature.
In his first formal session with the media since taking office, Cole said that “the number one issue when I (met with legislators) was water, water, water,” Cole said. “I believe we can get something done on water.”
“I can’t even imagine having to live in a home that had drinking water that was challenged.”
Evers has used his budget and other actions to make the issue a top priority, including efforts to address lead contamination of municipal water lines, rural well contamination and types of chemical pollution being found in ground and surface waters.
Republicans, too, have indicated an interest in water issues this year, with Assembly Speaker Robin Vos convening of a special committee on water problems.
Cole said that there are siutations in Wisconsin where manure is being applied in excess on land that can’t support it. New regulations might be required, but Cole said there is an array of other tools that can be used to control the amount of animal waste.
He emphasized that any initiatives would need support from Republican lawmakers and key constituencies such as farm groups.
“They understand that something has to happen and they want to be at the table with us,” Cole said. “They are not running away from this problem.”
Karen Gefvert, executive director of the governmental relations for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, agreed.
She said farmers are refining their management practices. She also said that more study is needed.