Wisconsin Assembly sends high-cap well bill to Walker

By Todd Richmond

MADISON, Wis. — Republican lawmakers finished their drive Tuesday to relax high-capacity well regulations, pushing a bill through the state Assembly and on to Gov. Scott Walker's desk despite Democrats' warnings that wells are draining central Wisconsin's lakes and streams.

Senate Republicans passed the bill last month. Assembly Republicans followed suit after about 2½ hours of debate Tuesday. Walker signaled hours before the debate began during a visit to Sun Prairie High School that he plans to sign it, saying it will protect Wisconsin agriculture. Many state farmers, particularly potato growers in the central sands region, rely on high-capacity wells for large-scale irrigation.

"It's important to make sure our farmers are able to grow some of the best produce in the world," Walker said. "I think that's a priority. I do think it's an important issue."

High-capacity wells, capable of pumping at least 70 gallons of water per minute from the ground, have been part of Wisconsin's landscape since the mid-1940s. They began proliferating sharply in the 1990s as farmers looked to maximize yields and municipalities searched for water sources. In 1990, fewer than 6,000 wells operated in the state; today the state has 12,700.

No part of the state has a higher concentration of high-capacity wells than the central sands, 1.75 million acres in the middle of Wisconsin that has more than 800 trout streams and 300 lakes. The region's sandy soil doesn't hold water well, creating large-scale irrigation demands for potato growers. Of the 3,100 high capacity wells in the region, 2,290 are used for agricultural irrigation.

Lake property owners and conservationists have complained since the mid-2000s that the wells are draining central sands lakes and streams. But the state's agriculture industry argues that the pumping is necessary because the porous soil in the central sands region doesn't hold enough rainwater to support farming.

The bill would essentially remove state Department of Natural Resources oversight checks on permit adherence when wells are repaired, rebuilt or transferred. The proposal would also require the DNR to study lakes and streams in the central sands region to determine whether special measures are needed to protect ground and surface water there from depletion.

The measure comes after Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel issued a legal opinion last year saying the DNR lacks the authority to impose conditions on high-capacity wells based on their combined impact on state waters.

Assembly Democrats called the bill a giveaway to well owners during the floor debate. They argued the bill gives them the rights to their areas' water in perpetuity, leaving lake property owners to watch as their beloved waters — and tourism dollars — dry up.

"These high-capacity well owners have now become king of the fiefdom," Rep. Gary Hebel of Sun Prairie said. "It's disgusting what you're doing here today. We're going to live to regret it."

Rep. Katrina Shankland, a Democrat from Stevens Point, which lies in the central sands, nearly broke down in tears as she apologized to the region for the bill.

Republicans dismissed the Democrats' concerns as hyperbole. They defended the bill, saying it requires a study on depletion, applies only to existing wells and doesn't authorize additional pumping. Farmers need water daily for irrigation and shouldn't need permission from the DNR to fix, rebuild or sell their wells, they said, and deserve regulatory certainty, they insisted.

"We recognize in this state how vitally important agriculture is," Rep. Adam Jarchow of Balsam Lake said. "This vote says whether you stand with the farmers of this state or not."

The back-and-forth amounted to so much theater. With Republicans holding an overwhelming 64-35 majority, passage was never in doubt. In the end the chamber passed the measure on a 62-35 vote.