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Our clean drinking water or their profits?

Wisconsin residents, concerned about their own health and the health of their local economy, demand that politicians do something to stem the rising risk of pollution. Politicians make a head-fake toward action, only to side with corporate special interests that would rather avoid responsibility than find a solution.

The script is playing out yet again as state policymakers consider a modest response to the drinking water crisis that sees parts of northeastern Wisconsin drowning in manure from large dairies.

The Department of Natural Resources has proposed reasonable limits about where, when and how farmers can spread manure in sensitive areas in and around Kewaunee County, near Green Bay.

The rule, offered after years of deliberation and dialogue among a range community and industry stakeholders, is designed to protect drinking water tainted by bacteria and other pathogens that travel from manure on fields to wells that thousands of people rely on daily.

Science suggests the rules aren't enough — southern and western Wisconsin bedrock has the same "karst" characteristics that make pollution more likely from manure spreading. The tight focus on northeastern Wisconsin was, in fact, a compromise approach that gives us a path toward a more comprehensive statewide solution.

But even a small step toward sensible protections for Wisconsin communities has drawn resistance from corporate lobbyists who seek to gut proposed rules — cutting the number of wells that would be protected in half.

Whether corporate special interests will convince politicians that clean tap water for all is less important than profits for a few large polluters remains an open question. Natural Resources Board members consider the proposed rule Wednesday. Approval clears the path for it to go to the Legislature, where leaders would have the option of taking no action and allow the rule — called NR 151 — to take effect.

Legislators could also bow to industry lobbyists and try to further limit local protections from the illnesses and lower property values that go hand and hand with unchecked pollution from manure spreading.

So what is a state to do when it relies on clean water for healthy people and its economy driven by agriculture and tourism? Three things:

* Embrace the modest approach embodied by the proposed NR 151 rule. We cannot afford to wait for a less robust approach to fail.

* Study the problem of manure spreading across Wisconsin. Northeast Wisconsin is not the only vulnerable area and state funds should be allocated to understand the true scope of the issue.

* Enforce rigorous standards with additional county conservation staff across the state.

You and I can do much to ensure sound protections are enacted. It begins with voicing concerns during comment periods for the proposed rule. And, contact your legislators to voice your support for strong drinking water protections across the state.

But we can also use our power as consumers to encourage more responsible farming. Celebrate the many farms that work to protect our waters while they provide the goods we find in grocery stores.

For now, we must all recognize and respond to the threat posed by concentrated manure in sensitive parts of the state. People lives are very much at risk. So is the economic vitality of affected communities.

The DNR's NR 151 revision is a solid first step. We strongly encourage policymakers to take it with the support of River Alliance of Wisconsin and our thousands of members.

Raj Shukla is executive director of River Alliance of Wisconsin, a statewide organization that empowers people to protect and restore water.

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