After debate, La Crosse County Board OKs advisory referendum on whether to deem clean water basic human right

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) — On its surface, favoring clean water seems like a no-brainer, but scheduling a referendum on making clean water a basic human right sparked debate during a La Crosse County Board meeting Thursday night.

Kicking the issue back to committee appeared to be a possibility until a 25-2 vote in favor set the advisory referendum for the April 5 ballot.

The ballot question will be: “Shall the State of Wisconsin establish a right to clean water to protect human health, the environment, and the diverse cultural and natural heritage of Wisconsin.”

“Who’s going to vote against clean water?” said Supervisor David Hundt, questioning the need to spend money on an election instead of just sending a board resolution to Madison advocating clean water.

Supervisor Jack Pogreba echoed the sentiment, saying that everyone agrees on the need for clean water without asking voters to endorse the concept.

“Why spend additional tax dollars … to do our job” advocating clean water, Pogreba said.

Supervisor Gary Padesky demurred, saying, “I think it is important to make a point … especially to the people on the island,” referring to residents of French Island plagued with well water contaminated with PFAS.

In fact, the resolution proposing the referendum had cited as its rationale “numerous indicators that the citizens of La Crosse County are concerned about groundwater and surface water issues including contamination from nitrates, PFAS, lead in drinking water, toxic algal blooms, flooding and over pumping from high capacity wells.”
Among those pressing for the referendum was Supervisor Steve Doyle, who also wears a hat as a state representative.

“I can tell you from my personal perspective,” Doyle said, “if we send as a resolution” merely from the board to the governor and Legislature, they will read it as just 29 people.

But a vote of the electorate would send a bigger message, Doyle said, adding, “For the folks on French Island, this is a big deal.”

Other counties in the state also are advancing resolutions for the referendum, dubbed Clean Water Now.

After a short debate among supervisors about the need for an actual referendum, they voted against kicking it back to committee.

Almost immediately after the vote to schedule the election, the River Alliance of Wisconsin issued a statement hailing the decision.

“By voting ‘yes’ to the Clean Water Now referendum question next April, voters — regardless of political party — can send elected and government officials a very clear message that clean, abundant water should be treated as a basic human right,” said River Alliance water advocates organizer Johnson Bridgwater.

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