A Hybrid Option for Ensuring Groundwater Quality in Wisconsin

In a policy memo for Political Science 272, Introduction to Public Policy (UW), Ryan Thiele writes to the Wisconsin State Legislature a proposal for adopting a set of programs in protecting groundwater quality in the state.


In response to a growing concern over groundwater contamination in Wisconsin, a bipartisan Task Force on Water Quality was established for the purpose of drafting laws and programs to alleviate contamination in Wisconsin’s water. This memorandum will address the issue of nitrate, the most common pollutant, and its danger to Wisconsin water. Further, a series of options will be presented regarding education of agricultural practices and active reduction in nitrate contamination, with a final recommendation for a hybrid program that combines both proposals for an effective state policy on ensuring groundwater quality.

High levels of nitrate contaminated water may cause nitrate poisoning in adults. It is especially dangerous for infants who are not developed enough to process large amounts of nitrates in their system. In fact, too much nitrate can cause complications in oxygen transportation throughout the body, causing oxygen deprivation and death. To protect against nitrate poisoning, the Environmental Protection Agency has set a maximum contaminant level of nitrate at 10 mg/L. Wisconsin’s nitrate contamination continues to get worse, with almost half a million residents seeing a 54% increase of contamination within their water over 15 years, with more wells and Public Water Systems (PWS) reaching the maximum level than ever before. While almost all PWS’ are below the 10 mg/L threshold, many are above a 3 mg/L threshold that denotes contamination. The most concerning component is that the increase in nitrate contamination was found in over half of recently tested tap-water supplies.

Issue Analysis

10% of private wells in Wisconsin tested above the safety threshold for nitrate;6 . If this trend continued, 30% of the population that supplies their own water could be drinking contaminated water. Luckily, the state has previously identified where most nitrate contamination comes from: approximately 90% comes from agriculture throughout Wisconsin. The nitrate primarily originates from fertilizers and manure, where nitrogen is often not accumulated by plants, volatilized, or carried away by runoff. The nitrogen then disperses into groundwater in the form of nitrate, removing nitrogen needed by other crops and elevating nitrate concentration in water well above acceptable levels of quality. As mentioned previously, groundwater contamination is rising; this is concerning because 75% of Wisconsin residents “rely on groundwater as a primary drinking water source.” Yet, knowing where and how nitrate primarily contaminates groundwater does not equate to an easy solution. Farmers are constantly battling multiple factors in growing crops, including seasons, variable prices in supplies, and ultimately care for the quality of their land. Any changes to their livelihood are bound to incur costs that may cause caution towards public interests. This was noted in the Task Force Water Quality Report: “[Stakeholders] indicated that some agricultural producers may hesitate to try [new] programs due to fear of a reduction in crop yields.” Therefore, a policy should be judged as successful when nitrate contamination is decreased and cost to farmers for changes in practices are mitigated.


The first two options presented are originally found by the Task Force and are chosen because they achieve the policy goal best. The options would be administered by the Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (DATCP). Regulatory authority originates from Chapter 93 (DATCP) and Chapter 160.07, enforcement of standards for groundwater.

First, utilizing cover crops and no-till practices to reduce runoff have proved to be some of the most effective ways in reducing the leaching of nitrate. In fact, the planting of cover crops and usage of no-till techniques in winter proved to reduce nitrate leaching and assisted in reducing other costs like land upkeep during regular planting seasons. However, the possibility of falling crop yields under these techniques have encouraged farmers to purchase crop insurance. The Task Force recommends LRB-4717/1, which would provide rebates of $5/acre to farmers who purchase crop insurance, a copy of a program already administered in Iowa. While the benefits mitigate the cost of insurance to those who plant cover crops, the proposal does not describe how it would actually encourage more farmers to change their practices.

A second option recommended by the Task Force is LRB-4751/1, a hybrid grant and educational program where the DATCP would award grants to agricultural producers who “implement a [innovative] project…that reduces nitrogen loading…by crowing a crop that reduces less nitrogen…or by expanding or conserving wetlands.” Further, it requires that eligible universities collaborate on monitoring and conducting research to help agricultural producers adopt and implement better practices. While this program would certainly expand education of better practices to producers, its focus on “innovative” is misleading: producers have little incentive to innovate if costs are too high or they are unaware of other options.

A third option is to combine both proposals. By combining both programs, education and research could be shared throughout the state while reducing costs to producers, thereby incentivizing changes in practice towards sustainable agriculture. However, the cost of the combined program may alarm legislators who would see it as either a 20% increase on top of educational grants or a 400% increase on top of cover crop insurance rebates.

Recommendation and Conclusion

Our objective is to limit the contamination of nitrate in groundwater while mitigating costs to agricultural producers. The best policy choice in achieving this goal is to adopt the third option, a hybrid program between the grant and educational program and the insurance rebates for those who plant cover crops. The increased cost in adopting both programs jointly is justified by its results. By educating, researching, and monitoring agricultural producers, we can encourage and educate farmers in adopting new farming practices that minimize nitrate leaching. The program then incentivizes adherence to recommended practices by state universities and DATCP by awarding grants and insurance rebates in adopting practices, notably cover crops. By adopting university researched techniques, producers could then satisfy the “innovative” requirement by grants, thereby accelerating adoption of better farming techniques. Finally, the joint program includes a way to ensure the effectiveness of the program. Under LRB-4751/1, universities must monitor projects, conduct research, and gather information for a legislative report in response. This allows for a second pair of eyes outside of DATCP to monitor the effectiveness of the program and recommend a permanent policy to lawmakers.

Water contamination is becoming a greater concern for our state. Hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites are already drinking nitrate contaminated water in some capacity, with some water systems above the EPA’s limit for nitrate concentration. Adopting both measures begins a joint university and public agency program that would see statewide education of new agricultural practices that reduce contamination in our water supply. Innovative grants and insurance rebates for adoption of sustainable practices incentivizes agricultural producers to adopt practices knowing their costs are subsidized by the state in its mission to ensure long term water quality.


Margaret McCasland, et al., Cornell University, “Nitrate: Health Effects in Drinking Water”

Environmental Protection Agency, Estimated Nitrate Concentrations in Groundwater Used for Drinking (2020)

Danielle Kaeding, Wisconsin Public Radio, “Report Finds Wisconsin is Among 10 States Where Nitrate Contamination is Getting Worse” (2020)

Adam DeWeese, et al. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, “Drinking Water and Groundwater Study Group Meeting” (2018)

Anne Weir Schechinger, Environmental Working Group, “Nitrate in Drinking Water, 2003-2017: Wisconsin” (2020)

Wisconsin Groundwater Coordinating Council, “Report to the Legislature,” (2020)

Environmental Protection Agency, Estimated Nitrate Concentrations in Groundwater Used for Drinking (2020)

Wisconsin Groundwater Coordinating Council, “Report to the Legislature,” (2020)

Margaret McCasland, et al., Cornell University, “Nitrate: Health Effects in Drinking Water”

John Luczaj and Kevin Masarik, Universities of Wisconsin, Green Bay and Stevens Point, “Groundwater Quantity and Quality Issues in a Water-Rich Region: Examples from Wisconsin, USA” (2015)

Scott Gordon, WisContext, “Agricultural Practices Can Affect Levels of Nitrate in Groundwater” (2016)

Rep. Todd Novak and Rep. Katrina Shankland, “Report of the Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality” (2020)

Daniel Plaza-Bonilla, et al., Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, “Cover crops mitigate nitrate leaching in cropping systems including grain legumes” (2015)

L.J. Wyland, et al., University of California, “Winter cover crops in a vegetable cropping system: Impacts on nitrate leaching, soil water, crop yield, pests and management costs” (1999)

Mike Naig, Iowa Department of Agriculture & Land Stewardship, “Crop Insurance Discounts Available for Farmers Who Plant Cover Crops” (2019)

Rep. Todd Novak and Rep. Katrina Shankland, “Report of the Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality” (2020)