Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Wisconsin's Water Crisis

[Updating this 2013 item, as the special-interest led effort to ease shoreline development has been sneaked into the proposed budget through a Joint Finance Committee amendment.]

Wisconsin waters are at a crisis point.

Impossible, you say. We're bordered by two Great Lakes and the Mississippi River - - watershed abundance, border to border.

Water is so essential to our very definition that public access to and benefit from it was guaranteed by Congress in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 before Wisconsin statehood and is now inscribed in the Wisconsin Constitution as Article IX, "The Public Trust Doctrine."

The DNR Public Trust Doctrine web page announces that "Wisconsin's Waters Belong To Everyone" and explains that the state is obligated to assertively manage water with the public interest put first.

But Gov. Walker and the GOP-run Legislature are systematically upending the Public Trust Doctrine through power politics and party-line votes - - even in forums as inappropriate as Joint Finance Committee, line-item budget meetings - -  that are converting water to ideological currency and private-sector tools.

Through complacent, short-sighted and partisan behavior, these politicians are disconnecting wetlands from their ecosystems as harmfully as they are separating Wisconsin from imperative local-to-international discussion action planning to promote water conservation.

Turning that attitude around begins with absorbing the common sense conclusion of a 1966 Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling that has informed water-related decision-making for decades:
A little fill here and there may seem to be nothing to become excited about. But one fill, though comparatively inconsequential, may lead to another, and another, and before long a great body of water may be eaten away until it may no longer exist. Our navigable waters are a precious natural heritage; once gone, they disappear forever.
An approach underscored by an even earlier Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling in the 1914 Husting case that emphasized the primacy of unfettered, beneficial public access to water
"The wisdom of the policy which, in the organic laws of our state, steadfastly and carefully preserved to the people the full and free use of public waters, cannot be questioned. Nor should it be limited or curtailed by narrow constructions. It should be interpreted in the broad and beneficent spirit that gave rise to it in order that the people may fully enjoy the intended benefits.
The current official and lamentably partisan disdain for good science, established law and principled public water policy emerged in the early hours of Governor Walker's administration.

That's when, in the name of job-creation, Walker pushed the Legislature to adopt a bill short-circuiting the formal, routine review of a wetland filling permit application from a Green Bay-area developer (and Walker campaign contributor) to facilitate the construction of a national fishing equipment mega-store.

Controversy followed. The retailer, aware of the contradiction between fishing supplies and wetland filling withdrew from the situation.

Not even a subsequent 2011 letter from federal officials citing a jaw-dropping 75 "omissions and deviations" in Wisconsin's management of the US Clean Water Act has slowed the flow of proposals or actions by the Governor, state agencies and the Legislature to:

* End some environmental reviews for some major development projects.

* Change laws to ease building in wetlands, including waterways protected for their scientifically significant status. The bill was drafted with active input from Wisconsin building interests; Walker signed it to a standing ovation at a convention of Realtors.

* Allow mega-dairies to expand without serious regard for the watertable, and exempt some new high-capacity wells (100,000 gallons+ daily) applicants from assessing those wells' cumulative water draw effects. Imagine the authorities saying developers could add as many 10-story parking ramps as they wanted without studying the impact on traffic.

* End the ability of municipalities to establish construction site runoff regulations stronger than state standards, and overall enforcement transferred to the DNR - -  an agency now run with a "chamber-of-commerce mentality" intentionally installed there by Gov. Walker.

* Deeply cut funding for a long-standing and bi-partisan open space acquisiton program - - the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund - - and require the DNR to sell 10,000 acres of land - - land that retains moisture, prevents flooding, filters water, and sustains fish and wildlife.

* Despite the need for erosion controls, open shoreland to greater development. 

* Enable unprecedented mountain-top removal in the pristine, northern Penokee Hills for a very deep, very wide open-pit iron ore mine that could run for 4.5-to-22 miles near the headwaters of the Bad River, streams and lakes near Lake Superior.

The mine would be upriver from public drinking water supplies and close to wild rice producing estuaries central to the survival of the Bad River Band of Ojibwe (Chippewa), and would produce, despite scientific testimony and other warnings, millions of tons of acid-yielding waste rock set to be dumped with state approval directly into streams and wetlands.

Is this rush to make water law and policy changes rooted in good science? Common sense?

*  When asked why the Ojibwe were not provided a seat at the table when the mining bill was drafted behind closed doors with company participation, two key Assembly members said the tribe's input wasn't feasible or required.

When a fifth-generation Mellen farm family living near the mine's proposed blasting and open-pit excavation area expressed to visiting State Sen. Glenn Grothman, (R-West Bend), its concern that mine operations would cause their well to drain away, Grothman said they should trust the mine operators to caulk for that.

Worse, these legal and policy changes to water policy and law are taking place against a backdrop of other troubling, visible water emergencies and risks being ignored:

*  Lake Michigan is plagued by destructive invasive species and remains at persistent low water levels that negatively impacting commercial shipping and recreational boating.

*  Wisconsin surface waters are vulnerable to reduced volumes from warming temperatures that accelerate evaporation. 

*  The Little Plover River - - once a reliable angling gem in Central Wisconsin - - has run dry. It is affected by the rapid increase in high-capacity agricultural wells sited nearby, and is listed nationally as a most-endangered waterway.

*  Three separate and substantial 2012 fuel spills from pipeline breaks have fouled land and water near Grand Marsh, in Adams County, in and around Jackson and its wildlife marsh in Washington County, and the edge of Mitchell Airport and a creek close to Lake Michigan.

Where in this roiled political and natural environment is the respect for the Public Trust Doctrine, and for the State Supreme Court's water warning nearly a half-century ago:
A little fill here and there may seem to be nothing to become excited about. But one fill, though comparatively inconsequential, may lead to another, and another, and before long a great body of water may be eaten away until it may no longer exist. Our navigable waters are a precious natural heritage; once gone, they disappear forever.

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