Current Policy Priorities
River Alliance Position on Mining
The River Alliance of Wisconsin does not oppose mining that would follow current environmental regulations. But we oppose any changes to current laws and regulations that cut out public involvement, including limiting citizen suits and contested case hearings. These changes, coupled with attempts to weaken other water regulations, will both hasten mining and destroy river banks, lake shores and wetlands all across the state.
Keeping Rivers Flowing
Most of Wisconsin’s rivers, lakes and wetlands simply would not exist without ample groundwater supply. They are quite literally the result of groundwater breaking through to the surface via springs and seeps, filling depressions in the land and flowing downhill. Of course rainfall and snowmelt running off the land contributes, but when it hasn’t rained for some time, it’s groundwater that keeps rivers flowing and lakes and wetlands from going dry. Groundwater is also the source for drinking water for 70% of Wisconsin’s residents, supplies water for businesses and industries in 97% of Wisconsin’s communities, and provides 99% of the water used for irrigation across the state.
It has long been assumed that our groundwater supplies are inexhaustible, but in some parts of the state, water is being pumped out of the ground at a far greater rate than it can be replenished, and nearby rivers, lakes and wetlands are paying the price. Our current state laws do not provide the means to balance groundwater use to protect natural resources, or to remedy severely depleted waterways. Add the effects of ongoing drought in northern Wisconsin and uncertainties about the future impacts of climate change and we have a disaster in the making.
The River Alliance has been leading the charge to improve Wisconsin’s groundwater laws to better protect groundwater supply and groundwater dependent waterways. A top priority for the conservation community, in early 2010 bills were proposed in both the Senate and the Assembly and received strong support from citizens. Unfortunately the legislature’s two-year long session ended before the bills came to a vote, and chances are slim that this issue will become a priority for the current legislature. None the less, we will continue to seek out opportunities to advance improvements to groundwater laws.
Getting the Brown Out
In addition to concerns about overuse of groundwater, the River Alliance has been actively involved in efforts to protect groundwater quality from the impacts of land-spread wastes. There have been long term contamination issues in the northeast part of the state as manure and other wastes spread on the land quickly infiltrate groundwater and run off into streams. Every spring delivers brown water out of the taps of homeowners in “karst” regions of the state, areas of exposed bedrock left by glaciers that extend from Door County, arcing south and then northwest toward Barron County. These “karst” areas are especially susceptible to groundwater contamination, as land-applied manure and industrial and municipal sludge flows freely into cracks in the bedrock and directly to the groundwater. These cracks also carry polluted runoff laterally into nearby surface waters. Wisconsin’s one-size-fits-all rules for manure management just aren’t good enough for karst areas, and our goal is establish special management zones for these problem areas.
A bill to create these special management zones was introduced in 2010, but as with the groundwater quantity bills, did not come to a vote. We will continue to be advocates for manure-free drinking water and look for ways to forward this effort.
A healthy shoreline, that area of transition from land to water, is key to healthy waterways. Natural vegetation slows and absorbs runoff and helps prevent erosion, provides habitat for birds, amphibians and the insects they eat, and creates shelter for young fish. Wisconsin recognized the value of limiting development close to the water’s edge and maintaining natural shoreline vegetation years before most states, but Wisconsin’s 40-year old Shoreland Zoning rules were obsolete for today’s shoreline development pressures. The River Alliance worked for many years advocating to protect waterways through science-based shoreland development rules, and a good set of minimum standards was approved at last in 2009.
But the new Shoreland Zoning rule is just the first step – each of the state’s 72 counties must adopt and enforce their own standards, which must at least comply with the state’s minimum requirements. Counties can be more protective, and in fact, many already are. They have until early 2012 to adopt their ordinances, and citizens should play a role in ensuring their county adopts standard that best protect their unique waters. Wisconsin Lakes’ website includes an excellent synopsis of what each county needs to include in their ordinance, an array of ideas and examples of how counties can improve on these minimum standards, and links to resources that provide justification for going beyond the minimums.
For more information on how you can influence good local shoreland zoning requirements, contact Lori Grant, Policy Program Manager at 608-257-2424, ext. 111.
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