Stateline Story

On the Record: Wisconsin DNR Secretary George Meyer

  • November 15, 2000
  • By John Nagy

Logging. Breweries. Large dairy farms. These are a few of Wisconsin's favorite things. Perched between two of the worlds largest bodies of fresh water, the Badger State has as long a tradition of capitalizing on its natural resources as it does of backing the kind of progressive politics that led then-Sen. Gaylord Nelson to inaugurate Earth Day in 1969. caught up with the man currently in charge of balancing these interests, state ECOS, a non-profit organization that links the interests of top officials from 52 of the 55 states and territories. What are the top environmental challenges that states will face in the next five years and how are they likely to handle them?

Meyer: I think the greatest challenge we face in the air area clearly is bringing states back into [air quality] attainment. And the greatest difficulties are with ozone throughout the United States. I believe that the one-hour requirements being authorized by EPA right now will go a long way to [improve] that. If the new eight-hour standards come out, they will provide the basis for states to do more. That will be addressed fairly effectively over the next eight to ten years. Would you spell out the difference between the one-hour and eight-hour attainment standards?

Meyer: The eight-hour standard, because it measures over a longer period of time, tends to get at background conditions. It is more realistic in terms of people's exposure to the air. The one-hour standard is a short period of time that, while it [measures exposures that] obviously would affect people, is not as representative.

Another of the great challenges many of the states face is mercury emissions. For example, in our state, of the 500 bodies of water that do not meet water quality standards, 60 percent of them are because of mercury in the fish, which comes from air emissions of fossil fuel, mainly coal. It gets up in the air and comes down in the lakes and we end up with heavily contaminated fish in many of the lakes across the country. That is just starting to be regulated by the federal government and state governments. How about water pollution?

In the water pollution area, the major problem the states face is non-point pollution, mainly run- off from city streets and farm fields. The whole process of TMDLs (total maximum daily loads), which the states have to develop, will continue for ten to 15 years before it will effectively bring back those water bodies to meet state and federal water quality standards.

Another issue not being addressed very effectively in this country at all is global climate change. It appears that Washington is gridlocked on this issue and, from my perspective as a state DNR director, that needs to be broken through. There are some very cost-effective ways to start addressing the issue of greenhouse gas emissions. Things such as energy conservation and energy efficiency could substantially reduce greenhouse emissions. Urban sprawl is a big problem in many states that has grabbed the public's interest.

Meyer: It is a major issue. For state fish and wildlife agencies it has a major impact on habitat and fisheries in wildlife. In our state, it became important to adopt smart growth legislation following in the way of Maryland and Tennessee and some of these other states. Does that work in the same way as Maryland's law?

Meyer: Yes it does. We haven't gone quite as far as Maryland has, but it is a good start and I think it will be enhanced in the next few years. Are the states starting to make connections between sprawl and some of these environmental problems?

Meyer: Our agency has a research program and one of the research projects it just completed shows the effect of urbanization on water quality, which is basically a non-point issue. And as we start to see urban sprawl, the streams in that area will be the first indicator we have of environmental problems because of lower water quality. You also have the issue of air emissions. As you have longer distances for people to commute, you have more air emissions from vehicles. We can see that starting to happen. In those areas of the state where we have not had attainment problems, we're starting to get closer to that level where we may. And often it's because of the automobile, not because of industry. Perrier's decision to drill and possibly bottle Wisconsin spring water over local objections has been a big concern this year. Could you comment on the status of their actions?

Meyer: Right now, Perrier is starting to do its test wells, which will determine what level of pumping will start to adversely affect surface waters. That testing will be done over the next month. Based on that, we'll be able to set a gallonage level in other words, how much they'll be able to pump. They've asked for 500 gallons per minute. It may be 50, it might be 250, it might be 300, based on the results of these tests.

In the meantime, there have been three lawsuits filed. One is against the department for not having done an environmental impact statement rather than an environmental analysis. There's been a challenge to Perrier saying that they needed zoning permits for the test wells. And a third lawsuit has been filed by a Native American tribe in the state saying that these springs are sacred. We've looked into that and do not believe that is the case. How do you plan to work with the nearby communities on resolving some of their concerns?

On the issue of water use, we have a liaison with the local citizens so they can see the testing as it takes place and exactly what the results are. We've also asked besides our own scientists scientists from the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point and also one from the U.S. Geological Survey to help design the tests with us, monitor them and interpret the results. So we have a broad, open testing protocol underway that I think will have a lot of credibility when we have final results. We'll make that information available as we get it.