Are Wisconsin Voters Willing To Take Their Chances At The Tap?

tap water photo

photo: mitwa17/Creative Commons

When money gets tight and voters feel especially uncertain about the future, legislators, wanting to look like they are doing something to help, may be tempted to halt the normal environmental rule-making steps. Here's a remarkable example from Wisconsin: Republican lawmakers have stepped in to 'help' their constituents by forbidding the big bad Department of Natural Resources from forcing small towns and villages to spend money on tap water disinfection. Regulatory micromanagement like this gets a boost from the Tea Party-like presumption that all government is bad and that given new information about a serious public health risk, regulators will do the 'wrong' thing to manage it. Wisconsin's Capitol Times covered the story well.

Republicans have introduced bills in each legislative house that would repeal a Department of Natural Resources rule that requires municipal governments to disinfect drinking water. The rule went into effect on Dec. 1 of last year, and it affects 12 percent of the state's municipal water supply systems. The other 88 percent of municipalities already disinfect their water.

"When I heard about this law being proposed, I thought, 'You might as well legislate that the sun rises in the west," says Mark Borchardt, a leading infectious groundwater disease specialist and a staff member with the Environmental Protection Agency Advisory Board. He has done groundbreaking studies that showed that about 13 percent of acute gastro-intestinal illnesses in Wisconsin municipalities that don't disinfect their water supplies are tied to dirty drinking water.

By the way, it's unusual to know the exact cause of an individual case of 'gastroenteritis' (a fancy doc term for gut ache, puking and so on).

common waterborne diseases

Some waterborne diseases can have serious health impacts, especially in children and the elderly. Here are some of the more common ones. Image credit: MA Water Resources Authority
Hidden Indirect Costs & Direct Healthcare Costs
The specific pathogen associated with initially-reported incidents may remain unknown or uncertain until well after an 'outbreak' occurs, and following formal investigation by government scientists. Too late to avoid bad publicity during the height of the tourist season, for example. And, performed at additional cost to taxpayers.

A visit to the ER after 3 days of the turkey trots, for example, wouldn't be free. Who's going to pay for that, do you suppose? Obamacare maybe?

The Bottom Line
Ten or twenty years ago, lawmakers would typically keep to law making and delegate the technical details of environmental or public health rule making and enforcement to public health and engineering professionals. If, after reading about a proposed new rule, and hearing from constituents, legislators felt constituent complaints were being over-looked, they'd phone up an Administrator to ask for more flexibility to be built into the rule.

Per this example, there might be an exemption for towns with no demonstrated history of a tap water contamination problem and which have well designed and properly maintained water systems. Something that would mitigate the cost burden, commensurate with risk.

Meetings would take place and a mutually acceptable compromise would generally result. One drawback: Legislators don't get their name in the paper for that level of intervention.

Now, it seems, we start with the belief that public health officials can do no right and law makers must intervene directly with countermanding legislation. This approach does get a bill sponsor's name in the papers. And, if done with unanimity, a political party name is associated with the 'victory.'

So, make scary talking points on environmental laws or rules, whether real or imaginary or just made up out of whole cloth makes no difference. When voters are sufficiently afraid of the economic impacts, introduce laws to ban risk management standards, and then stand up and take credit for it. Wow.

Billionaire solution: redux.
One way to dampen the enthusiasm for this particular intervention would be for a mystery billionaire to invite sponsoring legislators for a weekend at a rural Mexican village. There they might sample the delicious tap water for a couple days, and return home to share with their constituents an explanation as to why they would be missing a few extra days of doing the people's work.

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