State Assembly to vote next week on controversial high-capacity wells bill
By Mark Sommerhauser, Wisconsin State Journal

Republicans who control the state Assembly have set a Tuesday vote for a controversial bill to dial back oversight of high-capacity wells, even as Democrats and environmental groups continued to say the bill is being rushed to the desk of Gov. Scott Walker.

It’s at least the second time in recent weeks that critics assailed supporters of the bill as moving forward too speedily and without sufficient public input. The full Senate passed the bill earlier this month after one of its committees approved it by paper ballot.

 “All signs point to this bill is being rushed and not thoroughly vetted,” said Amber Meyer Smith, a spokeswoman for Clean Wisconsin, an environmental group that opposes the measure.

Republican legislative leaders deny the bill is advancing with undue haste.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, told reporters Thursday that “longstanding Assembly practice” is being followed, in part because the Assembly Agriculture Committee heard the bill last month.

The committee did not vote on the bill.

“Our process has always been the same under Democrats and Republicans,” Vos said.

Senate Bill 76 would remove state regulators’ ability to review environmental effects of wells when they are being replaced or sold. Unlike other state permits aimed at protecting the environment, a high-capacity well permit never expires.

A single high-capacity well pumps at least 100,000 gallons a day from underground aquifers. Farm groups have said the wells, numbers of which have sharply risen in recent years, are crucial to support the state’s vegetable growers.

Scientists, meanwhile, have linked the massive amount of water used by the wells to shrinking lakes and dried-up sections of streams in the Central Sands region of the state.

The Assembly Rules Committee voted Thursday to put the bill on the docket for Tuesday’s floor session.

Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, unsuccessfully sought to delay a full Assembly vote on the bill, citing the lack of a committee vote.

Democratic Rep. Katrina Shankland, whose Stevens Point-area district is in the region most affected by the issue, said Republicans are moving too quickly on the bill.

“This deserves a committee vote,” Shankland said.

“It’s moving way too fast without the degree of public input that it deserves,” she said.

Last year, a similar bill passed the Senate but wasn’t enacted because the state Assembly passed a different version and the two chambers couldn’t reconcile them.

The Senate version lacked a provision that the Assembly bill included that would have expanded the legal right of people to seek compensation in court if their drinking water, lakes or streams were harmed by industrial-grade wells.

The bill moving forward this year lacks the expanded legal protection.

The Wisconsin State Journal reported last week on state records obtained by Clean Wisconsin. They show that since October, the state has approved requests from businesses for a billion gallons per month in new groundwater withdrawals from locations where state experts warned higher pumping levels could be expected to harm vulnerable lakes, streams and drinking water.