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Irrigation from high-capacity wells

High-capacity wells that have been linked to lower surface water are the source of water for irrigation systems like this one watering a cornfield in Waushara County.

State Senate Republicans plan to vote next week without a public committee meeting or debate on a controversial bill that would further loosen regulation of high-capacity wells that are linked to low water levels in lakes and streams.

After the plan for Labor and Regulatory Reform Committee members to vote by submitting paper ballots was announced Thursday, Democrats accused the GOP majority of trying to duck public discussion of the bill, which is favored by the agriculture industry, but unpopular with recreational users of lakes and streams.

Last week, a nine-hour public hearing drew more than 60 speakers for and against the proposal to eliminate environmental impact reviews of wells when they are replaced, repaired or sold. Those are the only times the state evaluates how an existing well pumping millions of gallons from the aquifer is affecting other water users.

A spokesman for the committee chairman acknowledged it was a hot issue but denied trying to avoid debate, saying the bill was debated last year when the Senate voted along party lines to pass a proposal with the same provisions.

The chairman, Sen. Stephen Nass, R-Whitewater, typically schedules votes by paper ballot as a convenience for committee members when there is only one item on a meeting agenda and there aren’t large numbers of amendments proposed, said spokesman Mike Mikalsen.

But Sen. Janis Ringhand said last year’s Senate debate didn’t cover new scientific findings on the way excessive pumping by farmers takes water away from others, including businesses that depend on tourists who flock to lakes and streams for fishing, boating, swimming and camping.

“More evidence has been presented for the committee to discuss, particularly in the Central Sands,” Ringhand said, referring to the 1.75 million-acre region east of the Wisconsin River where a two-year state-funded study confirmed decades of research linking high-volume pumping to dwindling surface water that leaves docks high and dry and turns some lakes into fields of grass and weeds.

The Wisconsin Dairy Business Association and the state Potato and Vegetable Growers Association say wells aren’t the only reason surface water levels sometimes fall. Farmers need certainty in their water supplies, they said.

Senate Bill 76 and Assembly Bill 105 call for further study of several parts of the Central Sands. The studies could lead to pumping restrictions in three or four years.

But conservationists say years of increased pumping will damage more fish habitat when streams dry up and lakes recede, and it will mean an even longer period of time for the aquifer to recover.

High-capacity wells have pumped 291 billion gallons of groundwater from the Central Sands from 2011 to 2015, according to state records. Statewide, vegetable farmers used about a third of the 1.2 trillion gallons pumped, second only to municipal water systems. Private industry and dairy farms used smaller amounts.

Voting by paper ballot fits the pattern being used by Republicans who control the Legislature to deliver well deregulation to farm interests while drawing as little attention as possible from the public, said Sen. Mark Miller, a Monona Democrat whose bill to provide more review of pumping in vulnerable areas hasn’t drawn GOP support.

The Republican-sponsored bills went to Senate and Assembly committees that don’t have members who represent Central Sands districts, and the panels held a single public hearing instead of two.

Attempts to pass similar bills last year failed when the Assembly wouldn’t agree to the Senate version. An Assembly committee then voted by paper ballot to ask Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel for a formal opinion addressing yet another aspect of well regulation that the industry wanted removed but lawmakers couldn’t agree upon.

Over the next four months, the DNR approved nearly 200 backlogged permit applications, including many that had been placed “on hold” for years by applicants unready to accept pumping restrictions or possible denial when the full impact on groundwater was considered.

The DNR’s water section chief said last week the department moved quickly on replacement well permits, and he couldn’t remember one being denied.

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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.