Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Voters Worried About PFAS in Water  

69% are worried, poll shows. But Evers and Legislature can't agree on how to address problem.

By - Apr 22nd, 2024 11:28 am
Running Tap Water. Image by Steve Johnson (Public Domain).

Running Tap Water. Photo by Steve Johnson (Public Domain).

Wisconsin residents’ concerns about PFAS-contaminated drinking water have become another election-year issue, although elected officials deadlocked again last week over how to spend $125 million set aside to fight the problem.

A Marquette University Law School poll, conducted 10 months ago, found that 69% of registered voters statewide were “very” or “somewhat” concerned about the so-called “forever chemicals” contaminating their drinking water, while 28% dismissed those concerns. In 2022, 61% of poll respondents worried about PFAS.

“Majorities of voters across the public spectrum are concerned about PFAS,” Professor Amber Wichowsky, chair of Marquette University’s Political Science Department and director of the university’s Civil Dialogues program, said in a WisconsinEye interview after the latest failure of elected officials to resolve how to spend the $125 million.

Wichowsky said PFAS, chemicals found in many domestic and fire-fighting products that have been linked to cancer, will be an election-year issue for some local voters. “It could be very much at play in some parts of the state, especially when we do have new [legislative district] maps in some places that will be competitive,” Wichowsky said.

Emily Berge, president of Eau Claire’s City Council and the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, said in the WisconsinEye interview that her community had to shut down half of its wells and faces costs of up to $22 million to correct PFAS contamination. Redirecting other wells and being atop a deep aquifer means the city’s water is now safe.

Berge noted that new legislative district maps mean Eau Claire will be part of three Assembly districts, instead of just one. “As [districts] become more competitive, hopefully this issue will come up more,” Berge said. “At the local level, we talk about it a lot.”

But Berge said concern about PFAS contamination varies widely, because some of the cities and villages the League represents have tested for PFAS while others have not. Testing poses a catch-22 problem for local officials, Berge explained. “When you test, it’s there and you need to have a solution…Some [municipalities] are very concerned, and some maybe not quite yet.”

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers vetoed the latest plan of Republicans legislators for the $125 million, which was approved last year. Evers said the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) – and not Republican lawmakers – should administer the funds and the GOP plan would give “polluters a free pass from cleaning up their own spills.” DNR has been without a secretary since Nov. 1.

Evers tried to force the Legislature’s Finance Committee to meet last week to release the $125 million, but Republicans who control the panel ignored that request.

Sen. Howard Marklein and Rep. Mark Born, committee co-chairs, said the governor could call a meeting of the panel but that doesn’t require it to meet or take action. “We are disappointed in your disregard for a co-equal branch of government, as well as the legislative process,” Born and Marklein told Evers.

Republican Sen. Eric Wimberger, a member of the budget committee and sponsor of the Republican plan, accused Evers and Finance Committee Democrats of staging a “publicity stunt.”

The federal Environmental Protection Agency recently announced a national standard for PFAS that municipal water systems will have to meet. Evers, Republican legislators and business groups have also clashed over proposals for DNR to set a state PFAS standard.

But about 30% of Wisconsin residents get their drinking water from private wells, Wichowsky noted. “There’s no (PFAS) standards there.”

Urban residents used to be more concerned about PFAS than rural residents, Wichowsky said. Now, “that difference is no longer there.”

Wichowsky will hold focus groups statewide this summer to ask local residents about PFAS contamination worries and how they get information about the problem.

With the drop in local media organizations, she added, “Not all Wisconsinites have access to local news coverage” about PFAS contamination.

Wichowsky said she hopes that the Capitol “stalemate” will be resolved, although the Legislature has adjourned for the year. “Talk about the greatest opportunity to find common ground – clean drinking water…Everyone recognizes that we want that.”

Hopefully, Berge added, Capitol officials “can get their act together” and agree on a compromise that releases the $125 million.

“Cities and villages didn’t necessarily put the PFAS in our water, but we’re tasked with getting it out,” Berge added. “You have to pay for it somehow.”

Steven Walters started covering the Capitol in 1988. Contact him at

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