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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

State Assembly Approves Controversial High Capacity Well Bill

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Update: Democratic and Republican state Representatives sounded like they were from different planets, or at least talking about a different bill, during long deliberations Tuesday.

Republican Rep Gary Tauchen of Bonduel said the bill simply does two things, "It works with existing wells - that they be maintianed, that they be repairedand that they be transferred.  And the other thing it does is it has a study area in the Central Sands area."

Democratic Rep Cory Mason of Racine said balancing the water needs of farmers with the long-term susttainability of the state's surface and groundwater is a complicated task, "This bill attempts to give a simple answer to a complex question in violation of our state constitution."

In the end,  the bill passed along party lines - 62 to 35.

Original Story, May 2:

The proposed law would allow the owners of high capacity wells to repair them, replace them or sell them - without having to check-in with the DNR.

Until now, the agency has had a built-in review mechanism to make sure the well was in proper operating condition and not impacting nearby lakes, rivers and drinking water wells.

Supporters of the bill says the state’s large farmers need a reliable source of water and streamlined regulations to operate efficiently. Critics insist the state should closely scrutinize wells that pump a lot of water, rather than give some owners a forever permit.

A high capacity well can draw up to 70 gallons of water a minute, or more than 100,000 gallons a day.

Some farmers in Wisconsin – often with large operations - use high capacity wells to water their crops. Other owners are those who operate frac sand mining businesses.

The bill puts two elements of Wisconsin’s culture and economy at odds - farming and tourism, both rely on a plentiful water resource.

While Wisconsin is a water-rich state, significant draws by a growing number of high capacity wells could impact a region’s hydrology, which might be felt in both water quantity and quality.

You have only to look at one region in the middle of the state to see the tension. The Central Sands’ 1.75 million acres is both intensely farmed and prized for hundreds of trout streams and lakes.

Avid anglers and property owners there say agricultural irrigation is drawing down more and more surface waters.

In fact, a recent study by the DNR, the UW-Extension and the U.S. Geological Survey concluded that a river there called Little Plover has been susceptible to pumping.

Farmers question the findings, and insist existing wells should be allowed to continue operating.

This bill only applies to existing wells. According to the Wisconsin DNR as of March 15 of this year, there were 13,182 high capacity wells approved for use throughout the state; 2,990 of those in the Central Sands area.

But there has been another development regarding new high capacity wells in Wisconsin. There was precedent for the DNR, as it was deciding whether to grant permits for new wells, to consider the cumulative impacts they could have on neighboring streams and lakes.

About a year ago, Attorney General Brad Schimel turned that policy upside down. He said the DNR lacks the authority to impose such conditions on well owners. Within a few months of his decision, the DNR approved 190 high capacity well applications.

Critics believe the attorney general’s legal opinion coupled with the high capacity bill up for a vote Tuesday fly in the face of Wisconsin’s constitution. It calls on the state to protect its natural resources – including its waters - for all its citizens.

So no matter what decision the Legislature makes on the bill, the issue may wind up in court.