War over water in the land of plenty

Crops clash with lakes and streams in central Wisconsin

Plainfield — Many crops in this vast, sandy swath of the state would shrivel without water from thousands of high-capacity wells.

So would a multibillion-dollar industry that produces fresh potatoes, cans of green beans and bags of Doritos.

“Basically, you’d have range land,” said Ken Williams, a University of Wisconsin Extension agriculture agent in Waushara County. “It would look more or less like something you’d see out West.”

But in a state with an abundance of water, there are growing concerns about the ecological effects of irrigation and the exponential growth of large wells.

Those worries were compounded recently when state regulators began exerting less authority over construction of new high-capacity wells, which can take a potentially harmful toll on the landscape.

A “high-capacity well,” under state law, has the capability with other wells on a property to pump more than 100,000 gallons of groundwater a day. That’s equivalent to all of the showers, dishwashing and yard sprinkling that a typical family uses in a year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In the plains of the Central Sands that run roughly from Wisconsin Dells to the southern edge of Shawano County, groundwater collects in thick seams of sand and gravel, often only a few feet below the ground. The same water sprayed in graceful arcs over farm fields also feeds lakes, streams and wetlands.

It’s these competing demands between agriculture and groups worried about the health of waterways that have embroiled the region in a water war. In Wisconsin's increasingly polarized political climate, efforts to solve the problem appear nowhere in sight.

Near Stevens Point, the Little Plover River in Portage County has had sections run dry in some summers.

On Long Lake near Plainfield in Waushara County, grass and shrubs poke up from a lake that once held largemouth bass and northern pike. It’s withered to a marsh.

“There is no way I could put out a dock,” said homeowner Brian Wolf. “There is no way I could put out a boat. I can’t fish.”

“Farmers say, ‘We’re feeding the world,’ ” Wolf said. “Yes, but you are using my water.”

In 1960, in the early days of modern irrigation, there were 97 high-capacity wells in the region, state data compiled by George Kraft, a hydrogeologist at UW-Stevens Point, show.

By 2013, the number had blossomed to 2,205 — an increase of 2,173%.

Groundwater pumping will continue to expand in the region, according to the 2016 report of the Wisconsin Groundwater Coordinating Council, which was released last week. The council provides state agencies annual updates on groundwater issues.

By Kraft’s analysis, dozens of lakes, streams and rivers have been negatively affected by high-capacity wells.

“What we are really doing is dewatering an entire region,” he said.