Conservation has been a concern in Wisconsin for more than a century. In 1867, a legislative commission reported that depletion of the northern forests by wasteful timber industry practices and frequent forest fires had become an urgent problem, partly because it increased the hazards of flooding. In 1897, a forestry warden was appointed and a system of fire detection and control was set up. A reforestation program was instituted in 1911; at about the same time, the state university began planting rows of trees in plains areas to protect soil from wind erosion, a method that was widely copied in other states. Fish and game wardens were appointed in the 1880s. In 1927, the state began a program to clean its waters of industrial wastes, caused especially by pulp and paper mills and canneries. The legislature enacted a comprehensive antipollution program in 1966.
The present Department of Natural Resources (DNR), organized in 1967, brings together conservation and environmental protection responsibilities. The department supervises air, water, and solid-waste pollution control programs and deals with the protection of forest, fish, and wildlife resources.
Southeastern Wisconsin has experienced serious air quality problems since the 1970s. Reductions in industrial emissions have been offset by increases in emissions from transportation sources and consumer products. In 2002, the US Environmental Protection Agency implemented new requirements for reporting air quality, and the DNR developed procedures to help corporations comply.
Since water pollution became a serious problem in the 1920s, pulp and paper mills, cheese factories, and canneries have taken major steps to control and prevent harmful water pollution. Communities built new or upgraded existing sewage treatment plants to reduce the flow of sewage into rivers and streams. Pulp and paper mills spent millions of dollars to reduce suspended solids and other pollutants in their industrial effluent. Water quality and fisheries visibly improved, but problems caused by persistent toxic chemicals, such as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and mercury, arose that had to be addressed next. In the 1980s, the state identified five Areas of Concern on Lakes Michigan and Superior where toxic pollutants harmed fish or wildlife or impaired human use of the waterways. Efforts are underway to identify sources of contamination and clean-up options at these sites and inland areas suffering similar problems. Regulations controlling the discharge of toxic substances from both water and air were passed in the late 1980s, and water quality improved significantly by 2000.
Contaminated stormwater and run-off from agriculture, development, and other sources remain the most serious threats to Wisconsin's lakes, rivers, and streams. The state adopted rules to limit stormwater contamination in large municipalities, construction sites over five acres, and 10,000 industrial facilities. The DNR also formed a citizen advisory committee in 1994 to overhaul the state's animal waste regulations; new rules to control polluted runoff from agricultural, non-agricultural, and transportation sources went into effect 1 October 2002. Wetland protection regulations were upgraded in the late 1980s, and in 1991 the state became the first in the nation to legislate wetlands protection. Wisconsin has a Wetlands Restoration program administered by the US Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) with assistance from DNR. Between 1992 and 1998, approximately 11,312 acres of wetlands were restored.
Wisconsin passed a comprehensive groundwater protection law in 1984 to safeguard underground water supplies that serve two-thirds of the state's population. The law requires identification and clean-up of groundwater-damaging contamination sources, such as abandoned, leaking landfills;
In 1996, Wisconsin began administering a new program whereby owners of contaminated property could petition the state for clean-up waivers if they were able to demonstrate that contamination was being cleaned up by natural processes. Property owners would then be able to redevelop within strict guidelines and monitoring. By mid-1997, 51 properties had applied for such liability releases, 30 of which were approved.
Bacterial contamination of Wisconsin drinking water supplies did not pose much of a problem in the state until 1993 when 400,000 Milwaukee residents became ill from inadequately treated water drawn from Lake Michigan. The water was found to contain the protozoan Cryptosporidium. Water treatment procedures were changed immediately at 21 community drinking water treatment plants that drew water from the Great Lakes. The state also began a two-year Cryptosporidium monitoring effort to determine the presence and distribution of this protozoan in state waterways.
In the 1980s, more than 800 landfills in the state closed because they could not meet new federal environmental protection requirements. To ease the burden on the state's remaining landfills, Wisconsin passed a comprehensive waste reduction and recycling law, 1989 Wisconsin Act 335. The law required local units of government to set up effective programs to recycle more than 11 different items by 1995. State grants collected from a tax on businesses were awarded to local governments to aid in setting up local recycling programs. The legislature is expected to decide a permanent funding mechanism in a future legislative session.
In 2003, Wisconsin had 163 hazardous waste sites listed in the Environmental Protection Agency's database, 39 of which were on the National Priorities List. In 2001, Wisconsin received $87,268,000 in federal grants from the Environmental Protection Agency; EPA expenditures for procurement contracts in Wisconsin that year amounted to $7,229,000.