Wisconsin Citizens Act to Protect Our Waters

“Environmental laws don’t enforce themselves and the environment doesn’t have a voice unless we speak up for it,” stated Arlen Christenson, Co-Founder of MEA.

On October 20, 2015, 16 citizens from across the state filed a Petition for Corrective Action with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to request action to bring Wisconsin into compliance with the Clean Water Act. Once a leader in conservation and protection of our natural resources, Wisconsin now may need to turn over authority to administer the Clean Water Act to the federal government. Our current executive and legislative branches have failed to provide the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources the authority and resources to protect both surface and groundwater. The Wisconsin Supreme Court has also reduced the DNR’s authority and taken away citizen rights granted in the Clean Water Act.

Clean Water Action Council President and Petitioner Dean Hoegger speaks at the press conference announcing CWA Petition to the EPA. Photo by Brenda Staudenmaier.

Clean Water Action Council President and Petitioner Dean Hoegger speaks at the press conference announcing CWA Petition to the EPA.
Photo by Brenda Staudenmaier.

The petition was filed by Midwest Environmental Advocates (MEA), a non-profit law firm with a commitment to protect the health and wealth of the state’s water resources. MEA describes the petition as a document that outlines the ways in which Wisconsin is out of compliance with the Clean Water Act through a “demonstrated lack of clear or effective implementation of the law, adequate enforcement, or proper legal authority.”

Petitioners in another recent action, the Safe Drinking Water Act Petition to the EPA (see Legal Actions CWAC Winter 2014-2015 Newsletter: http://www.cleanwateractioncouncil.org/newsletter/), filed with the EPA in October of 2014, and their participation in workgroups formed by the DNR to address those issues, confirm the following findings by MEA:

  • Action of Wisconsin elected officials and the courts has left the DNR without the clear authority it needs to issue water pollution permits in a way that fully satisfies Clean Water Act requirements.
  • The DNR is not adequately responding to known statutory and regulatory omissions and deficiencies that Wisconsin must resolve in order to meet minimum requirements of the Clean Water Act.
  • The DNR’s program doesn’t include limits in water pollution permits that are protective enough of water quality.

In 2011, the EPA informed the DNR that the state was not in compliance with 75 aspects of the Clean Water Act. While the DNR claims that about half of those non-compliance issues have been corrected, residents most affected with this lack of compliance have contested these claims. This petition asks the EPA to work with the DNR to set enforceable timelines for corrective action on these deficiencies. If Wisconsin is not able to correct these deficiencies, the petition asks the EPA to take back authority to administer the Act.

In order to be in compliance, it appears that legislative action will be required, since many of the changes in rule making and enforcement authority of the DNR to protect our water, will require action by our legislators. “The Governor and state legislature have starved the DNR’s power and robbed the agency’s experienced staff of professional autonomy to make informed decisions,” said MEA’s Executive Director Kimberlee Wright. “Today, this drastically narrowed authority of DNR staff to make critical decisions about protecting our water requires urgent action by the EPA. Without effective government, we are compounding what our children and grandchildren will face in a world increasingly short of drinking water.”

Will the current state leaders be up to the task of placing the goal of protecting our water resources over supporting monetary gain by a few individuals and corporations? Or, will voters need to cast their votes in future elections for individuals who will protect our precious water resources?


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