Update, Wednesday, April 5 at 9:30 a.m.:
The Senate voted Wednesday morning along party lines, 19-13, to move the bill forward. It exempts existing high-capacity wells from review of the Department of Natural Resources if the well needs to be repaired, replaced or sold.
Update, Tuesday, April 4 at 6 p.m.:
Democrats and Republicans volleyed back and forth concerns for two-and-a-half hours – Democrats saying the bill gives water rights to some, and strips away the rights of others; Republicans saying the bill simply provides certainty to farmers, who would still be subject to stringent environmental standards.
Then as the body seemed poised to take a final vote, one of the bill’s authors, Sen Scott Fitzgerald moved to adjourn until 8 am, Wednesday morning.
Senator Lena Taylor objected. The Joint Finance Committee is slated to hold a budget hearing in West Allis at 10 am. Taylor said postponing the Senate vote makes it impossible for her and other colleagues to make the listening session.
The Senate is due to vote on a bill today that passed in committee strictly along party lines: Republicans voted yes, Democrats no.
The bill eliminates an existing requirement that the Wisconsin DNR takes a look at a high-capacity well before it is repaired, replaced or sold.
The bill's authors says they simply want to give the state’s farmers some certainty. If they already have a high capacity well, the new law would allow them to quickly take action if it fails.
Some farmers rely on high-capacity wells to ensure crops are quenched when they need it. Just one can pump more than 100,000 gallons of water per day.
There was only been one opportunity for public input. That was a few weeks ago at a joint committee hearing. It stretched across nine hours and more than 60 people testified.
Tamas Houlihan spoke in support of the bill insisting that time can be critical for farmers. Houlihan is executive director of the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association.
“These are not new wells with new pumping capacity. These wells do not need repair or replacement because additional water is needed. Rather they have had mechanical or structural failures that need to be addressed. In some cases, the wells have simply reached a point of disrepair, where they must be re-drilled. It’s important to note that a grower can lose a crop in 24 hours if a well fails and cannot be quickly repaired or replaced,” Houlihan said.
So, in other words, Houlihan wants to underscore the fact that this bill does not deal with NEW wells, but only with wells that have already been at work.
Much of the debate has centered around the Central Sands region of Wisconsin, and that’s where quite a few opponents of the bill live.
The Central Sands is 1.75 million acres located east of the Wisconsin River. There’s lots of farming going on there, and nearly 3,000 high capacity wells dot the fields.
Some would also say the region has been studied to death. Researchers recently wrapped up a two-year review of decades’ worth of data that links high-volume pumping to diminished water levels in nearby lakes and streams.
Carol Elvery lives in the Central Sands area and is part of a conservation coalition. Elvery says she’s seen the impacts of high-capacity wells first hand.
She isn’t simply worried the DNR would no longer monitor existing wells - she says under the bill, citizens could no longer call for judicial review if they believe a well, or series of wells are putting a watershed at risk.
“Those we drafted this bill and cosponsored it must have known that it benefits only a few at the expense of all of the rest of us. If it were a fair bill, balancing the need to maintain water in our lakes and streams with giving the farmers water but not so much as to impair our lakes and rivers, there would be no need to prohibit contested case hearings or judicial review requests, “ Elvery added, “ Citizens must be able to able to challenge an action that hurts or endangers them. Don’t take that away.”
High capacity wells appear to be inextricably linked to farming in our state these days. Big farmers across the state – not just in the Central Sands region rely on those powerful wells. Statewide they number more than 13,000.
Audio courtesy of WisconsinEye.