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High-Capacity Well Debate Runs Deep in Wisconsin's Central Sands

Erik Ness

The eight-county agricultural hub spans from Wausau to Portage.  Water abounds -the Wisconsin River, 300 lakes, mile upon mile of mile of trout streams.
Madison-based writer Erik Ness wrote about the region's water debate in the November issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

The Central Sand’s unique hydrology ties back to the Ice Age, specifically.“to the end of the last great glaciation,a little lope of the Green Bay Glacier slipped under and dammed the Wisconsin River, and so as the glacier was melting, you had this ice dam and the other end. So all of this sand and gravel was washing into this great Wisconsin lake, what they called Glacial Lake Wisconsin, and it settled on the bottom, kind of like a huge sandbox," Ness says.

It created a 100 foot layer of sand and gravel on top of bedrock below.

“And when that dam broke it carved out the Wisconsin River, but it also left behind this big sandbox and it sort of laid the table for a spectacular natural area, but also the groundwater problems that they face today,” Ness says.

For years, farmers attempted to farm the Central Sands, but faced challenges.

“In sandy soils, things grow well, but you have to water it constantly,” Ness says.

The solution came after World War II. The aluminum industry was looking for a new market.

”It had gotten such a boost during war time production, and they realized they could make central-point irrigation system,” Ness says.

In 1950 fewer than 100 of high capacity wells dotted the countryside. Today there are more than 3,000.

“A high capacity well is defined by the state as one that pumps 100,000 gallons or more of water a day,” Ness says.

All of that pumping drives the water table down.

“And that’s the challenge, with the lakes and rivers in the Central Sands because they sit at the very top of the aquifer. When we put in 3,000 high capacity wells and all of them are pulling, there’s still a lot of water left in the aquifer, just not at the surface,” Ness says.

The Little Plover River has become the poster child of the region. Scientists began studying it the 1960s.

“It has no tributaries, it is also one of the most studied rivers in the United States, it’s just an interesting hydrogeological phenomenon; it has got beautiful sandy bottoms and a wonderful trout population,” Ness says.

In 1963 the United States Geological Survey ran an experiment,”they put a high capacity well right next to the Little Plover River, and pumped an awful lot of water out of it, and watch the river go down; then they stop the pumping, and watch the river come back up,” Ness says.

More studies followed.

“In 1996, when the Village of Little Plover put in a new municipal well in the watershed, scientists at UW Stevens Point ran the numbers and said, when this well gets to full capacity, athe Little Plover River is going to start running dry, and it did, starting in 2005. And it has run dangerously low almost every year since,” Ness says.

The conflicts that arise when rivers like the Little Plover run low, have not been eased by state policy.

Ness says the Wisconsin’s legislature did attempt to create a framework, largely driven he said, with the creation of the Great Lakes Compact, “ the state legislature realized its groundwater laws were woefully inadequate the for the kind of management challenges they were going to be facing in the future.”

Ness describes the groundwater management law that passed almost unanimously in 2004 as a first step “it was agreed by members of both parties that they were not done, that they would have to come back in a few more years.”

That next step did not come.

In 2011 debate was fueled by a state Supreme Court decision. It did not deal specifically with the Central Sands, but a small community in southeast Wisconsin, called Lake Beulah, where a proposed high-capacity well was proposed.

Ness says the Supreme Court ruling reiterates a state principal, “rivers being forever free. That whole idea of public access to the waterways…..and the Supreme Court decision added the observation that groundwater is clearly connected to surface water, and the DNR needs to find a way to take it into account when it issues its rulings on high capacity wells.”

When the state legislature goes back in session, groundwater is expected to be on the agenda.

“I think it will definitely be on the agenda, but I don’t think anybody knows quite yet what it’s going to look like” Ness says.

In the Central Sands, another study is underway.

This one coordinated by a Wisconsin Geological & Natural History Survey, “basically doing the same kind of study that’s been done a few times. But what he is bringing to it is new computer power. And when they are done modeling the Little Plover River, it is conceivable that they will be able to optimize their water use.”

Any plan, Ness predicts will require coordinated effort “by scientists, farmers, municipalities, by everyone using water. They have share information, they have to share power and to give up the option to throw on the tap on a given day.”

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.