Un-Wisconsin: Former leader backslides on environment

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By Gary Wilson

Mention Wisconsin and what comes to mind?

I’ll bet it’s the recent public battle with the Republican governor and legislature pitted against the state’s public unions over collective bargaining rights. The fight spilled into the streets and legislative corridors of Madison and received national media coverage.

But not garnering as much attention is the assault on environmental regulations waged by the same governor and legislative majority.

Consider what first-term Governor Scott Walker has proposed since taking office in early January:

  • On his first day Walker issued an executive order that would expose protected isolated wetlands to development by industry.
  • He has proposed weakening critical phosphorus regulations. Phosphorus is a nutrient found in fertilizer.  Its runoff contributes to algae which depletes lakes and streams  of oxygen necessary to support life. Too much algal growth can  harm human health.
  • Walker has proposed ending Wisconsin’s mandatory recycling program in place since Gov. Tommy Thompson signed it into law in 1990. He also wants to eliminate state funding to help small communities pay for recycling programs.

How can this happen in Wisconsin? It  has been one of the most environmentally progressive states in the country.

It was the home of Sen. Gaylord Nelson, early champion of environmental laws and Earth Day founder.

Aldo Leopold laid the groundwork for environmental ethics in Wisconsin well before there was a movement.

It was citizen activists in Wisconsin who forced an extractive company, Perrier (now Nestle), to abandon plans for a bottled water operation.

My roots are in Michigan and I now live in Chicago. But ask me which Great Lakes state is the most environmentally progressive and my immediate response is Wisconsin. Recent events there are so un-Wisconsin

Mixed Reaction from Environmentalists

Amber Meyer Smith is taken aback by the rapid rollback of environmental regulations. She is director of programs and government relations for Clean Wisconsin, one of the state’s oldest environmental groups.

“Wisconsin has historically been a leader on clean water and conservation issues, no matter which party was in power,” she said.

“Of all the things the Walker administration is proposing, the rollback of the recycling law is the most incredible. Recycling has long been a big part of our identity in Wisconsin.”

What about the weakening of phosphorus regulations?

It’s ironic that as Wisconsin plans to weaken them, the bi-national body that advises the U.S. and Canadian governments on water issues is sounding the phosphorous alarm.

The International Joint Commission recently warned that algal growth caused by phosphorus is enjoying a “resurgence.”

It is among the priorities of Healing Our Waters,  a large, high profile coalition that works to protect and restore the Great Lakes.

HOW spokesman Jordan Lubetkin  declined to comment on the Wisconsin phosphorus rollback, saying the organization  “focuses its resources on federal funding and policy issues.” He referred me to Wisconsin organizations.

HOW’s response is curious and conspicuous.

If you are the acknowledged leader in protecting the Great Lakes and won’t make a simple condemnation of what’s happening in Wisconsin – something is wrong.

Jobs versus the environment

Bruce Baker, head of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’s Water Division, defended the  phosphorus changes,  repeating the mantra about facilitating job creation.

Baker told the Wisconsin State Journal “I think this is intended to synchronize what we do with other states and not put Wisconsin at an economic disadvantage at a time when that is a critical issue.”

The jobs versus the environment debate is alive and well.

This is an important time for environmental restoration of the Great Lakes region. Some progress has been made but the rollback and marginalization of environmental regulation and enforcement is the achilles heel of Great Lakes restoration.

If you want evidence, look at  Chesapeake Bay.

Six billion dollars was spent on restoring the Chesapeake over 25 years and the effort largely failed because of the lack of regulation and enforcement.

Walker’s initial approach to the environmental and economic well-being of Wisconsin is retrograde. His actions indicate that it’s based on the false premise that a healthy environment and vibrant economy are at odds.

National labor leaders rallied behind Wisconsin workers as their bargaining rights were under attack.

Great Lakes environmental leaders should do no less to protect Wisconsin’s environment.

Because what happens in Wisconsin impacts all of us, this isn’t the time to be on the sidelines.

9 thoughts on “Un-Wisconsin: Former leader backslides on environment

  1. Pingback: Rust belt govs need to shine up their environmental legacy | Great Lakes Echo

  2. Re earlier comments

    How can these new regulations be so burdensome if the implementation process isn’t even developed yet? Presumed guilty before even on trial in real-world settings! These had the endorsement of sewerage districts, municipalities, the Paper Council (!) and environmental leaders, none of whom are calling for rollbacks. Why can’t other states rise to a new standard instead of clinging to weaker ones that continue old, ineffective controls? So much of the current budget debate seems to be about finding the lowest common denominators (which aren’t working) and then calling it progress or “balance.” There are already burdens to municipalities and all of us who pay taxes. They are called stormwater flooding, sedimentation and degraded stream quality, closed beaches, lost tourism and recreational activity due to murky waters and stinking algae, less fishing because of degraded water quality, more costs in water testing to assure drink-ability and safety for human contact, and that’s just the beginning.

  3. Gary, Tom– Farmers are mentioned in the Baltimore Sun editorial. What it failed to mention was that these farmers are in reality industrial,chicken and hog “farmers” who have made a farce of Chesapeake Bay state’s pollution regulations. Every industrial hog farm has the fecal waste of a small city without the waste treatment requirements, except for holding ponds that leak. Industrial chicken farms, at best, spread the fecal waste on fields which then runs off into ditches, rivulets, creeks, streams, rivers that all empty into Chesapeake Bay. Both these sources create dead zones and destroy family commercial fishing operations.

  4. Tom,

    Thanks Tom for your comments.

    When I wrote that the achilles heel of Great Lakes Restoration is the lack of focus on regulation and enforcement, I cited the Chesapeake Bay’s failed 25 year/$6 billion effort as an example.

    This Baltimore Sun editorial summarizes the issue.

    The same principals apply to the Great Lakes.

    Gary Wilson

  5. Regulations can go overboard. What he’s doing is trying to ease them a bit because they have been such a burden on municipalities, business and taxpayers. He’s not getting rid of them but is trying to keep them more in line with what other states are doing. At least that’s how I understand it. I would hardly call it backsliding on the environment..

  6. What is most ironic or inexplicably counterintuitive is that water is the heart of the economic opportunity in the Great Lakes states. We have more water and better water quality than almost anywhere in the world.
    Allowing the water to get green with algae will not keep bright minds in Great Lakes states nor will green water attract business.
    How short sighted it is to let the water get greener by relaxing phosphorous regs. All of the Great Lakes states should take a look at Ohio’s inland 13000 acre lake, Grand Lake St. Marys and the economic ruin that came with green water,
    Take a look at western Lake Erie’s 2010 satellite photos – so green some beaches had to post algae contact warnings – so green that Toledo’s water plant intake paid $thousands daily extra to get the algae out of the water.
    The old saying penny wise and pound foolish comes to mind when we grab for today at the expense of tomorrow

  7. Baker is defending the Walker Administration’s
    race to mediocrity, and environmental standards are just one example. The hard-fought, carefully negotiated phosphorus regulations were designed to provide leadership in solutions. Apparently, leadership has gone out of style in Wisconsin (for now–you’ll have to wait a full year like the rest of us to see this turnaround take place).

    More nutrient pollution won’t create jobs or balance the budget. It will make my local lakes greener and unhealthy for swimming (a real tourism booster) and it will make the Fox River and Green Bay an even worse source of nutrient pollution to Lake Michigan (already the largest single source, alas).

    The Great Lakes cannot be easily sliced into “just” federal or state problems. Their health (and ours) is dependent on the partnership of all jurisdictions. If an entire state like Wisconsin chooses to bail out on one of its most important roles in protecting the Lakes and the waters of Wisconsin, it affects the whole region, and the impact of our federal Clean Water Act and the Water Quality Agreement (with Canada).

    We’re all in this together. (Hope this paces the “nice” test, but I’m not feeling very nice about my state Administration’s actions these days.)

  8. Walker is doing the bidding of his patrons, corporate America. Maybe you don’t believe in conspiracies, but, we are seeing a conspiracy of epic proportions being played out in our country. Corporate America, actually multinational corporations who now feel no allegiance to their birth country, see an opportunity to roll back gov’t regulations of every description. From pollution regs, to occupational and public safety regs, to banking and investment regs, etc., they want to eliminate any that reduce their profits or get in the way of their wheeling and dealing in the marketplace.

    We have a weak and ineffective president who inherited a war and a fiscal nightmare that will not be corrected overnight or maybe in 10 years. He made promises to the poor and disenfranchised that he may not be able to keep, and that will threaten the establishment. Given that the American people cannot see beyond the nose on their face, Obama has lost his majority and the corporate lackeys now have control. We have lost our Democracy, which has been replaced by a plutocracy, which is now demanding to have it’s way. The obscenely rich 3% of our population that controls 90% of this country’s wealth is making a grab for more.

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