Critics say fast-moving wells bill ignores urgent water ills

Wisconsin’s farm lobby is pressing lawmakers to lock in permits for high-capacity wells through legislation scheduled for a public hearing on Wednesday.

But residents who have seen lakes and streams dry up are pushing back and pointing to decades of scientific data and recent research to counter farm groups that maintain more study is needed before any reviews of existing high-volume wells are allowed.

Scheduling a joint hearing for both the Senate and Assembly versions of a bill is a common tool when lawmakers want to speed the passage of legislation facing popular opposition, said Amber Meyer Smith of Clean Wisconsin.

“They couldn’t pass it last year and it’s been hanging over their heads ever since,” Smith said.

A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, the lead author of the bill, denied that the proposal was being rushed. It was given hearings in both houses last year before the Assembly amended its version in a way the Senate wouldn’t accept.

This year the Senate version has been introduced in both houses without a provision from last year’s Assembly bill that would have expanded legal rights of people living near the wells whose access to water was harmed.

The legislation would eliminate any state review of the impact on other water users of existing industrial-grade wells when they are replaced, repaired or sold. Those are the only times the state Department of Natural Resources re-evaluates wells that pump at least 100,000 gallons a day because high-capacity well permits never expire.

Senate Bill 76 and Assembly Bill 105 call for ground water studies in parts of the Central Sands that could lead to state Department of Natural Resources recommendations for permitting restrictions within four years.

Conservationists have said this would allow years of continued and increased pumping before action could be taken. And the study areas cover only about 25 percent of the Central Sands’ protected “exceptional resource waters,” 21 percent of its trout streams and 18 percent of its high-capacity wells, Smith said.

Citizens turned out in December and January when the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association made presentations to the Waupaca and Portage county boards seeking to dispute scientific findings on the impact of wells in the state’s Central Sands region.

The association had planned to visit more counties, said growers association executive director Tamas Houlihan.

“They came in large numbers, 30 to 40 folks, and they all wanted to speak,” Houlihan said. “We just thought, ‘This is not productive,’ and we stopped doing those.”

Potatoes are a thirsty crop. Three Wisconsin counties — Waushara, Adams and Portage — that are typically ranked as the state’s top potato producers are also the top three for groundwater withdrawals. The state is the nation’s third-largest potato producer.

Central Sands aquifer

The three counties are part of Wisconsin’s Central Sands region, which encompasses about 1.75 million acres east of the Wisconsin River. Sand and gravel deposited by glaciers hold groundwater in a single large aquifer that is closely connected to the region’s 800 miles of trout streams and 300 lakes. It also includes parts of Marathon, Marquette, Shawano, Waupaca and Wood counties.

High-capacity wells have pumped 291 billion gallons of ground water from the Central Sands from 2011 to 2015, according to DNR records. There are 2,990 high-capacity wells, up from 97 in 1960. Droughts in 1976-77 and 2012 spurred big increases in permits, according to DNR records.

Statewide, vegetable farmers used about a third of the 1.2 trillion gallons pumped from 2011 to 2015, second only to municipal water systems. Private industry and dairy farms used smaller amounts.

Houlihan said the growers association admits that pumping water for crops contributes to lower water levels, but he found fault with a two-year, peer reviewed study of the Little Plover River watershed in the northern edge of the Central Sands.

The state-funded study by the U.S. Geological Society and the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey confirmed several previous studies showing that water levels fell when nearby high-capacity wells pumped the most.

In an interview, Houlihan complained that the two-year study didn’t take into account climate change as a cause for lower river levels. But one of the study’s leaders, Ken Bradbury, said the river’s water level fell during rainy periods, which indicates climate wasn’t a driving force.

Sections of the river have dried up at times because of the wells, jeopardizing aquatic life, said George Kraft, a UW-Stevens Point professor who has done extensive research on Wisconsin ground water.

The growers association has stated that water pumped from the aquifer and sprayed on crops soaks back in the ground, but Kraft and Bradbury said only 10 to 20 percent is returned. The rest is absorbed through plant roots and either held in the plant or released into the air through plant leaves, they said.

Houlihan said growers are participating in a new study in conjunction with the village of Plover and others aimed at finding solutions to lowering water tables aside from limiting farm water usage.

The study will examine alternatives such as restoring wetlands, boosting river flows with treated wastewater from a canning plant, dredging silt from the streambed and growing water-intensive crops like potatoes farther from lakes and streams, he said.

The DNR handles about 12 applications for replacement wells annually and about 60 for transfers in ownership of wells, spokesman Jim Dick said.

The department’s authority to review the cumulative impact of wells when it considers permit applications was curtailed last year.