GOP leader's bill would loosen high-capacity well regulations

By Steven Verburg, The Journal Times

The leader of the state Senate’s Republican majority has authored a bill to further relax regulation of high-powered water wells that have been linked to dwindling lakes and rivers in some parts of the state.

The bill would allow drilling of wells that pump large quantities of ground water for farms and industry without review by state regulators if the new wells replace existing permitted wells.

Conservationists and groups representing waterfront property owners have fought similar proposals — including several that failed last year — because they would eliminate opportunities to adjust well operations when they cause problems for other water users.

“It locks in the existing problems, especially in the central area of the state where lakes and streams are drying up,” Amber Meyer Smith of Clean Wisconsin said Wednesday.

The law gives perpetual rights to “whoever sticks their straw in the ground first” instead of taking into account shoreline landowners and others who want to fish, boat and swim, Smith said.

Senate Bill 76 was sent on Tuesday to the Committee on Labor and Regulatory Reform. Smith said the referral was puzzling because the Senate’s natural resources committee has a high level of expertise on wells and ground water issues. Past bills have gone to that committee and a panel on agriculture.

The chairman of the natural resources committee, Sen. Rob Cowles, R-Green Bay, said in January it was crucial for the state to enact legislation this year to protect water while allowing industry reasonable access. Cowles wasn’t listed as a co-sponsor of the new bill, and he wasn’t available to discuss it, a spokesman said.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, a Juneau Republican, is the lead sponsor. He couldn’t be reached for comment, but spokeswoman Myranda Tanck said the bill is identical to one that passed the Senate but failed to clear the Assembly last year.

Tanck said the labor and regulatory reform committee, like the natural resources panel, has senators with expertise related to well regulation.

The Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association has said high-capacity wells, which can withdraw at least 100,000 gallons a day, are important to its members. The association has argued against the findings of studies showing links between well operations and losses of lakes and rivers that are connected to ground water.

Fitzgerald’s bill covers replacement wells in a variety of circumstances and ownership transfers, allowing them to happen without any review of how the well was affecting other water users.

It would also launch studies of receding surface water in several areas, requiring the state Department of Natural Resources to submit recommendations about needed restrictions on well permitting to the Legislature within four years.

Conservationists have said the study provision fell short because it would allow years of increased pumping before action could be taken. And the bill authorizes protection of affected lakes or streams only without mentioning drinking water wells.

“While our lakes and streams are of grave concern, any private well owner whose well has run dry will tell you that there is much more at stake,” said Rep. Katrina Shankland, a Democrat from Stevens Point whose district covers a portion of the Central Sands region where surface waters have suffered. “It is the Legislature’s duty to protect all waters of our state, not pick winners and losers.”

Farmers, large animal feedlots, food processors and frac sand mine operators have driven a boom in high-capacity wells over the last decade. People who live near them have mounted legal challenges, saying the DNR wasn’t placing enough restrictions on them.

Last year, as a new state-funded study was completed showing how increases in pumping coincided with lower levels of water in the Little Plover River, support faltered for legislative proposals to relax regulations.

A comprehensive bill on the regulation of new wells — not just replacement wells — was opposed by conservationists as failing to adequately protect public waters, while industry groups complained it wouldn’t give them the certainty they desire.

Bills in the Assembly and the Senate were scaled back and amended, but the two houses couldn’t agree. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, led an effort to ask Republican state Attorney General Brad Schimel for a formal opinion aimed at speeding up issuance of well permits.

Permits were being held up or denied because of court decisions that had led the DNR to do two things that frustrated industry: The department sometimes required pump operators to report how much water they were using, and it considered the impact on public waters of all surrounding wells when making permit decisions.

Schimel’s opinion, citing a 2011 law limiting state agency authority to regulate industry, prompted the DNR to loosen regulations. After the department began approving permits for new wells, Clean Wisconsin filed lawsuits over nine permits issued without consideration of the cumulative impact on lakes, rivers and ground water.

Fitzgerald and Vos this year have said they want to consider bills similar to last year’s scaled-back proposals, which would make it easier to obtain permits for new wells replacing old ones while launching studies of water problems in the Central Sands.

Last year’s Assembly version differed from the Senate’s by including a provision that expanded the right of property owners to sue pump operators.

While Schimel’s opinion and the DNR’s relaxation of regulations could reduce the urgency some Republicans feel to pass new laws, two legislators who championed broad changes last year — Cowles and Rep. Scott Krug, R-Nekoosa — have been emphatic about the need to better protect water.

They were not among the initial co-sponsors of Fitzgerald’s bill. Krug, who represents a district in the Central Sands, has said he anticipates several bills this session.