Wisconsin has a rich tradition of bipartisan support for protecting our water resources. We are all obligated to uphold the Public Trust set forth in our State Constitution that says the waters of the state belong to the people of the state. From the first comprehensive Groundwater Protection Act in 1983, to the Groundwater Protection Act of 2003 and the Great Lakes Compact in 2007, there has been a collaborative effort between Democrats and Republicans, environmentalists and agriculture, municipalities and industry to do what is best for the resource. In fact, these three bills passed the Senate and Assembly by a total of 378-11.
In stark contrast to the long tradition of collaboration, Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee snuck a non-fiscal provision into the budget that could have dire consequences for the future of our waters. Motion #375, offered by Rep. Dan LaMahieu (R-Cascade), and passed on a party line vote of 12-4, removes the ability for anyone to challenge an application or permit for a high capacity well based on the cumulative impacts that well and others have on Wisconsin’s water supply. In addition, the provision is applied retroactively to any current challenges ongoing when the bill is signed into law.
What does this mean? This means that if you are a private well owner you will no longer have the opportunity to challenge a high capacity well permit, either issued or under consideration by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), if you think it will cause your well to run dry. Groundwater is a finite resource. Imagine that a glass of water represents the entirety of our water supply. Each time a new straw is put in that glass everyone’s consumption is affected. Every new high capacity well has an impact on current usage. A shared resource needs to have shared consideration.
This motion was passed for a very specific reason. The State Supreme Court ruled unanimously in July 2011, Lake Beulah Management District v. State Department of Natural Resources, that “pursuant to Wisconsin Statutes, along with the Legislature's delegation of the State's public trust duties, the DNR has the authority and a general duty to consider whether a proposed high capacity well may harm waters of the state.”
While its impacts are far reaching, this provision inserted in the budget is meant to directly and immediately impact a pending legal case. A challenge to the high capacity well permits for Richfield Dairy in Adams County has been filed against the DNR in part for their failure to consider the cumulative impacts of the high capacity wells. This budget provision is yet another example of Legislative Republicans doing special interest favors at the expense of Wisconsinites. Not coincidentally, the firm representing the dairy is Michael Best & Friedrich, the go-to law firm for Republicans.
Decisions that impact the future of Wisconsin’s water supply deserve to be vetted with the public in the light of day. Legislative Republicans and Governor Walker need to recognize the dangerous road they are travelling and remove this provision from the budget.
Sen. Miller is a former chair and current member of the Senate Natural Resources Committee.