Legislators address groundwater concerns with county

Written by Sari Lesk, Stevens Point Journal Media

State lawmakers from central Wisconsin say there’s no easy way to deal with the threat of groundwater shortages and to address high-capacity wells that can contribute to the problem.
Reps. Katrina Shankland and Scott Krug and Sen. Julie Lassa met Thursday evening with Portage County’s Groundwater Citizens Advisory Committee to share recent efforts at the state level to resolve groundwater issues, as well as to discuss ideas they have for the coming legislative session.
The meeting at the Portage County Annex attracted several concerned residents, including some who don’t have drinking water at home because of its unsafe level of nitrates. Groundwater has been a contentious issue in the area, with concerns over the quality and quantity of water spreading throughout the county and a call from County Executive Patty Dreier for everyone to be conscientious stewards of the resource.
The three lawmakers all addressed a judge’s recent ruling that the Department of Natural Resources failed to consider basic science in evaluating an application for a high-capacity well permit application from a dairy farm.
Shankland said the DNR not only has the authority, but also the duty, to consider the cumulative effects on an area’s water supply while considering a permit application for such a well. The judge’s decision applies only to Richfield Dairy in Adams County but legislators are waiting to see if there will be a statewide effect, she said.
“We should be able to have the DNR use science to properly make permitting decisions,” Shankland said. “Citizens have the right to challenge a well permit based on cumulative impact.”
She said that on the state level, coming up with legislation that would address problems relating to high-capacity wells is challenging because she doesn’t support laws that favor one group of people over another.
“You want all groups to come together and forge a solution that everyone can agree to,” she said.
Krug reminded people in attendance that although many farmers own high-capacity wells, they’re not the only users. Schools and municipalities operate such wells too, he said, adding to the complexity of how to hold well owners responsible for their water use through legislation.
“We need to find a mechanism,” he said. “We need to go to people who might be more related to the problem before we go to the general taxpayers.”
Dreier, who focused her 2014 State of the County address on groundwater, has been planning listening sessions around the county to gather more information about the issue throughout the rest of the year. The first session is planned for late September, she said.
Shankland said the sessions are a good opportunity for state legislators to learn more, as well, so they can adequately represent the area on this issue.