Bill dialing back oversight of massive wells heads to Scott Walker's desk

By Steven Verburg and Mark Sommerhauser, Wisconsin State Journal 

The state Assembly on Tuesday passed a controversial bill to further loosen regulation of high-capacity wells that remove billions of gallons of groundwater linked to shrinking lakes and streams.

The Senate already passed the bill, and The Associated Press reported that Walker signaled Tuesday that he would sign it.

“I believe in a state where $88 billion worth of our state’s economy is dependent on agriculture, it’s important to make sure our farmers are able to grow some of the best produce in the world,” Walker said.

Assembly Democrats said Tuesday that bill proponents are ignoring environmental concerns with the wells, including scientific research linking them to receding lakes and streams in the state’s Central Sands region.

Democrats also said majority Republicans rushed the bill to shield it from public scrutiny. They predicted a high-stakes court battle over whether the bill complies with water protections in the state constitution.

“It’s going to go to court,” said Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine. “This has gone completely outside the norm as you guys are ramming this bill through.”

The measure passed the Assembly on a 62-35 vote.

The issue pits big agriculture, particularly large vegetable growers, against tourism interests, anglers and property owners. The debate has been most intense in the Central Sands, located roughly between Stevens Point and Wisconsin Dells.

The number of high-capacity wells, each of which pumps at least 100,000 gallons a day from underground aquifers, has increased sharply in recent years, especially in the Central Sands.

Senate Bill 76 would remove state regulators’ ability to review environmental effects of wells when they are being replaced or sold. Critics of the bill say such reviews are crucial because, unlike many other state permits, high-capacity well permits never expire.

Assembly Republicans, meanwhile, called the bill a test of who sides with Wisconsin farmers.

“This vote says whether you stand with the farmers of this state or not,” said Rep. Adam Jarchow, R-Balsam Lake.

Debate on scope

The co-author of the bill, Rep. Gary Tauchen, R-Bonduel, told reporters before Tuesday’s session that he was aware of complaints about low water in only four lakes out of “a thousand” in the Central Sands.

Yet the state’s leading experts on Central Sands groundwater said in interviews Tuesday that almost all of the region’s 300 lakes and many sections of its 800 miles of trout streams have been diminished by wells there.

George Kraft, a UW-Stevens Point researcher, listed 36 lakes of 10 acres or more that have been drawn down by at least a foot, with some down as much as 5 feet.

“Biologists tell us that when 10 percent of the flow or more is taken by pumping, we can expect to see impacts to the fish life,” Kraft said. “Based on this criteria, there are likely hundreds of impacted stream miles.”

Republicans who control the Legislature have faced criticism for moving the bill swiftly without debate among lawmakers in Assembly or Senate committees, but they have maintained that the state’s agriculture industry needs sure access to water for crops.

In a press conference Tuesday, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said that without a guarantee of adequate water, a farmer’s land could drop in value.

Democrats said the GOP majority was picking winners and losers by giving high-powered well operators the right to withdraw so much of the aquifer that others were at risk of losing their drinking water and places for fishing and boating that increase property values and support tourism.

GOP leaders have said the legislation has been subject to plenty of discussion. A nine-hour public hearing was held in March, and essentially similar bills were passed by both the Assembly and Senate last year.

Those bills weren’t enacted because the Assembly version included a provision the Senate didn’t accept. It would have expanded the legal rights of people who are harmed when a high-capacity well degrades waters. This year’s bill lacks that provision.

Battle may shift

The bill mandates several years of groundwater research in the Central Sands, which has been hardest hit by dwindling surface water that scientists say is being drawn down by wells.

A Senate amendment to the bill adjusted the study area to cover locations with more wells. But Democrats and conservationists maintain that decades of research have already demonstrated the region’s vulnerable aquifer is being depleted, so it’s unwise to allow years of additional pumping to conduct yet another study.

The legislation comes on the heels of a rollback of well regulation last June, when the state Department of Natural Resources concluded that a 2011 law prohibited it from continuing to consider the full environmental impact of wells on groundwater when making decisions on well permits.

The DNR removed pumping limits from dozens of wells that had been restricted to protect neighboring water supplies. The revised permits allowed an additional 1 billion gallons per month in new groundwater withdrawals from places where the state’s own experts warned that higher pumping levels would cause specific harm to vulnerable lakes, streams and drinking water supplies.

The loosened regulations last year also led to approval of about 190 backlogged applications for new high-capacity wells between June and September.

Democratic Rep. Katrina Shankland, whose Stevens Point-area district covers part of the Central Sands, said in a press conference that the courts will need to step in because of the Legislature’s failure to give the DNR authority to protect public waters.

The conservation group Clean Wisconsin is currently in court to overturn eight well permits issued last year in which state officials have failed to follow a provision of the state constitution requiring preservation of access to water for the public.