Legislation Would Ease High Capacity Well Regulations in Wisconsin

Mar 16, 2017

A hearing room spilled over with people at the State Capitol Wednesday with people clambering to talk about high capacity wells. The bill allows owners of existing high capacity wells to repair them, or in an emergency replace them, - with zero DNR review. 

And if you sell your property, the high capacity well comes with it - no permitting strings attached.

Statewide, more than 13,000 high capacity wells exist. Each one can extract more than 100,000 gallons of water per day.

Farmer Zeb Zuehls says the bill is critical to his family’s livelihood. “We raise corn, food-food grade soy beans, alfalfa and small grains,” he says.

Eight years ago, Zuehls invested in two high capacity wells. “Irrigation has eliminated one of those negative factors on our sub-par soils by allowing me to water when I need it. I know lots of people have concerns about this bill. I value water just as much as anybody, we water only when we need to.” He adds, “It costs me money every time we turn that switch on.”

When nearby farmers activate their high capacity wells, Criste Greening says she can see the influence of the pumping in her backyard. A creek flows through it.

“My kids used to be able to look over the bank and see fish. I haven’t seen trout in the 10 Mile Creek area for years. I can also tell you when the high capacity wells kick on across the Portage County line – which is about ½ mile down the road, within 24-hours I can see the difference.” She adds, “By summer that creek is down feet, not just inches.”

Lucas Vebber, of the business group Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, says high capacity wells are vital - not just for agriculture, but other job-creating industries as well.

He assured the assembled crowd that the state’s navigable waters would remain unscathed by the legislation, because the Department of Natural Resources retains authority to investigate violations.

“Secondly, separately from DNR, completely independent process, any member of the public and person in Wisconsin can bring an action under WisAct 30.294 to abate a public nuisance such as the infringement of public rights related to navigable waters.” Vebber explains, “These are all remedies that are available under current law and are not touched by this bill.

Senator Mark Miller insists citizens should not have to go to bat for Wisconsin’s natural resources; he says that’s the Legislature’s job. “If we are depending on individual action to protect the public rights, we have failed, you and I have failed in our jobs. Because it’s our job as the representatives of the people that we are taking appropriate action to protect that resource,” he says.

Miller is spearheading alternate legislation. He says it would guide how many high capacity wells a specific watershed could sustain, and where they should be located.

Langlade County potato farmer Robert Getner refutes the notion high capacity wells diminish watersheds. “On that magnificent date in 1958 when our first well was drilled, the water was 20 feet below the surface. In 2016 the water in that same well was 16.8. So after 58 years after using the well, the water level has risen by over three feet,” he says.

Bob Clarke, of Friends of the Central Sands.
Credit Courtesy of Bob Clarke

A much-farmed region of Wisconsin - called the Central Sands - occupied much of Wednesday’s debate. Nearly 3,000 high capacity wells dot its fields.

Fourth general farmer Andy Diercks says while rainfall might sustain crops for a couple weeks in other parts of the state, in the Central Sands, "that lasts us three or four days because that water flushes through the root system quite quickly…We just don’t have the water holding capacity that soil does in other parts of the state."

Representative Dave Considine pressed farmer Diercks. "A hypothetical, let’s say, two years down the road we get this study done and it determines that we’re drawing too much. Would you be able to survive with five percent less water, or ten percent less water?” he asked.

"Certainly our position is if we agree there is impacted surface water, if there are wells that need to be cut back, or fields need to be taken out of production, that’s fine. I think it’s better to do that on a voluntary cooperate basis than to fight it through the legislative or court system,” Diercks adds. “I think agriculture is ready to have those conversations.”

Tim Rosenthal waited for hours to speak. The Town of Saratoga resident says he lived most of his 40 years knowing nothing about groundwater issues.

Now, he thinks about it a lot. A developer wants to establish a large dairy operation in Saratoga and dig as many as 33 high-capacity wells.

“I’m a taxpaying father that likes to have the availability to turn my faucet on and have the same quantity and quality of water that I’ve had for almost 40 years. I’d like that for generations to come,” Rosenthal says.

Wisconsin is considered to be a state rich in water, yet legislators seem to face a dilemma echoing across many parts of the country and world: how to balance our differing water demands.