High-capacity wells

The DNR is appealing a judge's decision to invalidate high-capacity well permits.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has gone to court to reinstate high-capacity well permits that its own experts said would harm vulnerable lakes, streams and drinking water.

The DNR has filed with the state Court of Appeals District 2 in Waukesha to overturn Dane County Circuit Judge Valerie Bailey-Rihn’s ruling in October throwing out eight industrial well permits granted to businesses by the DNR.

Bailey-Rihn ruled that the permits ran afoul of a constitutional provision requiring state government to protect water for the public.

She was ruling in a lawsuit the conservation group Clean Wisconsin filed in 2016 after examining permits the DNR issued after a policy change it made that year after state Attorney General Brad Schimel said the department had overstepped its authority.

Large farms, food processors and Republicans who control state government had been frustrated about pumping limits the DNR was imposing.

A legislative committee’s request prompted Schimel to issue his opinion that a 2011 law limiting the power of state agencies trumped court rulings that had led to the pumping limits.

The DNR had been limiting pumping when it determined that a new well combined with other high-capacity wells in an area would substantially harm wetlands, stream flows, groundwater, and ecology of the surrounding landscape.

However, the Legislature has never specifically authorized the department to consider the cumulative impact of all wells affecting a given area.

The DNR changed its policy and within months approved 190 high-capacity well applications that had been held up because businesses were unhappy with proposed pumping limits.

The agency also relaxed limits it previously placed on at least 38 wells, adding more than a billion gallons to the amount of water businesses were allowed to extract monthly.

The wells had potential to lower water levels in Pleasant Lake, Round Lake, Lake Emily, Rice Lake and Radley Creek, a Class 1 trout stream.

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Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.

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