Is clean water a right?

County board wrestles with clean water resolution


Some members of the Monroe County Board took issue with a resolution last Wednesday that referred to clean water as a “right”, before settling on a less controversial phrase.

Bob Micheel, director of the land conservation department, presented the resolution, which stated, “Monroe County Board of Supervisors establish a right to clean water to protect human health, the environment and the diverse culture and natural heritage of Wisconsin for the citizens of Monroe County.”

Micheel pointed out that five major waterways originate in Monroe County, while noting that it also has 200 miles of trout streams and an abundance of groundwater that county residents depend on for drinking water.

He said sediments and nutrients from erosion as well as  bacteria and, most recently, PFAs, toxic industrial chemicals that are harmful to human health, continue to threaten the county's water resources. He said those threats will continue to grow as land development expands.

“So when we talk about the right to clean water, with rights comes an expectation from the public,” he said.

Among those expectations, he noted, is the county’s responsibility to ensure clean water. It provides those assurances through its land conservation programs, which revolve around groundwater protections and improvement.

He alluded to the county’s recent approval of using American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA) funds for private well water testing and flood mitigation practices as an example of the county’s effort at  stewardship.

The resolution calls on the governor and state lawmakers to “meet their statutory obligation for funding land conservation departments’ staff, fully funding existing programs that foster improvements for their real benefit to Monroe County.”

“We can’t continue to pause at the state level and expect a different outcome,” he said.

While supervisors seemed fine with the intent of the resolution, some objected to the word “right.”

Supervisor Jim Kuhn made a motion to change the “right” to “plan to keep”.

“If a right can be established so superficially, it can be taken away,” he said, noting the county board doesn’t have the ability to claim a right. 

Supervisor Jen Schmitz opposed the motion “I think there is a right to clean water and I don’t think our water is clean enough,” she said, adding she knows people with small children whose wells have been tested for contaminants. “It is a right, it is a right, it’s a right.”

Supervisor Remi Gomez argued that the word “right” was an integral part of the resolution and “plan” doesn’t imply any future accountability or action for future governments to comply with the measure. He added the county board just established the fact the county has groundwater issues by earmarking ARPA funds for private well testing.

While Kuhn’s motion failed, another motion by Supervisor Mark Nicholson to amend the resolution to read “Monroe County Board supports the right to clean water” passed as did the amended resolution.

A copy of the  resolution will be forwarded to Gov. Tony Evers, Wisconsin legislators and other Wisconsin county boards.

In other business, the board voted to adjust the salary rates for the sheriff and clerk of courts ahead of the date candidates for those positions can begin taking out nomination papers for the November 2022 election.

Rates for the clerk of courts position will begin at $80,000 in 2023 and increase by 3% each of the three subsequent years, ending at $87,418 in 2026, the last year of the term. The sheriff will begin at $100,000 in 2023, and also increase by 3% each of the three subsequent years, ending at $109,272 in 2026. 

Personnel Director Ed Smudde said the county looked at other county caseloads and numbers of judges  in those counties to determine the clerk of courts rates.

It used police chiefs from the cities of Sparta and Tomah as comparables for the sheriff’s salary. Smudde said both cities’ chiefs had significantly higher salaries than the sheriff, despite the fact the county has a larger law enforcement department.

“This is an aggressive adjustment to get them more comparable to what the market would allocate them to,” he said.

The clerk of court’s current annual salary is $66,399, while the sheriff’s is $87,651.


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