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.

And, statewide, emerging trends could further tax aquifers, the council says. The factors include the growth of industrial sand mining, which is expected to grow for another decade; the continued development of water-intensive, large-scale dairy farms; and climate trends that portend more extreme weather — drought as well as bouts of flooding.

For years, environmentalists and property owners near troubled areas in the Central Sands have demanded limits on water use. They point to Minnesota and Michigan, which both have stronger laws to protect groundwater.

The Legislature has taken up bills to protect groundwater under Democratic control in 2010, and with a Republican majority in 2016. In both instances, nothing passed.

“Our message is that the Legislature needs to come up with a real solution,” said Elizabeth Wheeler, an attorney with Clean Wisconsin. “The DNR has this duty to uphold public trust responsibilities and it has a tough time with the gaps and ambiguities in the statutes.”

But Wisconsin is moving in the opposite direction.

In a major policy shift, the Department of Natural Resources decided in June that it would no longer take into account the cumulative effects of high-capacity wells on streams, wetlands and lakes when reviewing applications for new wells.

Citing a legal opinion from Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel, DNR officials said they would comply with Schimel’s contention that the agency lacked the authority to consider the compounding effects of such water use — even if there was evidence the wells were harming state waters.

A dock on Long Lake comes up short surrounded by weeds comes up short on deeper water.

Photo: Mark Hoffman/ Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Environmentalists and property owners living near affected waters said the attorney general was ignoring other parts of state law and state’s Public Trust Doctrine, which holds that all citizens own lakes and rivers and that the courts and state law have delegated significant oversight to the DNR.

They also chafed at what they see as a tilt away from the protection of water resources.

“The underlying politics here is that big ag gets what it wants,” said Denny Caneff, who recently left his post as executive director of the River Alliance of Wisconsin after 13 years. “The pendulum has really swung to private interests over the greater public good.”

Former DNR water division administrator Todd Ambs lays part of the blame with his former agency.

“The one place we certainly don’t see the leadership is out of the DNR,” said Ambs, now executive director of Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. “The DNR is not allowed any more to take positions on legislation. They are not allowed to go to the Legislature and say, ‘We need to fix this — and here’s how.’ ”

Secretary Cathy Stepp, a former homebuilder and GOP state senator from Racine County, has said the role of the DNR is not to set policy, but to enforce laws on the books.

Business and agricultural groups praised Schimel’s decision and agreed the DNR had been overstepping its authority.

From a practical standpoint, the DNR's shift has trimmed a one-year backlog in well reviews. Drought and growing demand for water drove up applications by the hundreds. And since 2011, court decisions have prompted officials to conduct time-consuming reviews of applications to determine if the wells would harm state waters.

The backlog forced some drillers to lay off workers and it cast a cloud over land values, said Paul Roberts, owner of Roberts Irrigation Co. Inc. of Plover in Portage County.

“It’s a system that did not work,” Roberts said.

But irrigation does work and has helped the industry blossom. “Guaranteed yields and harvestability,” explained Williams, the extension agent. “On irrigated ground, you pretty much know you are going to have a crop.”

Wisconsin ranks among the top five states in potatoes, sweet corn, green beans and carrots.

According to a UW-Madison analysis in 2010, specialty crop production and processing in Wisconsin — much of it in central Wisconsin — generates $6.4 billion in annual economic activity.

Straws in a glass

Think of high-capacity wells as straws in a glass. And every year, more and more straws are tossed in.

The number of high-capacity wells in Wisconsin increased by 54% to 10,456 between 2000 and 2015, according to DNR figures.