For decades, Wisconsin agriculture has talked about water limitations that farmers elsewhere might experience. There was speculation that California dairies would stop growing because water for cows would be needed in cities, and farmers in the Great Plains would not be able to irrigate their crops.
Yes, the West has its share of water quantity issues. Yet California’s milk production and cash grain crops in the Great Plains states both continue to grow. Technological advances are a big reason why today’s dairy cow is more efficient at making milk and drought resistant traits of seeds allow corn and soybeans to grown in areas once arid.
What we never expected was that there would be water quantity issues in Wisconsin. While experts agree that in general, we have plenty of groundwater in Wisconsin, certain regions face challenges. Groundwater volume in Waukesha (located just outside the Great Lakes Basin) has that municipality seeking permission to draw water from Lake Michigan. In the Central Sands region (where the water table is close to the surface) groundwater pumping may be affecting surface water levels in certain streams and ponds.
Further complicating our groundwater volume issues is a 2011 Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling in a case known as the Lake Beulah decision. In this case, a lake homeowner association challenged the Village of East Troy’s permit request to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for a new municipal well. The municipality sought a well (less than a half mile from Lake Beulah) that could pump 1.4 million gallons per day. The State Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the DNR had a “duty” to consider the impact of a proposed high capacity well on waters of the state, like Lake Beulah.
Prior to this ruling, state law required the DNR to do a more extensive review of high capacity well applications if the proposed well might effect a municipal well, would have a water loss greater than 95 percent (i.e., water bottling), impacted a spring with a flow greater than 1 cubic foot per second, or was within 1,200 feet of a trout stream, or a water body designated as an exceptional or outstanding resource water. Otherwise, for most high capacity wells, there was no requirement that DNR do a more extensive environmental review.
However, as a result of the Lake Beulah decision, the DNR now has the authority (as directed by the courts) and the “duty” to conduct an extensive environmental review of any high capacity well permit.
This is where it becomes complicated for farmers. When farmers need to replace or reconstruct an existing well, or just transfer a well as part of a land transaction, the DNR now is able and arguably required to review (and change) the high capacity well permit.
While they have not done so with regard to transfers of ownership, they have the authority to. It’s imperative that farmers contact their state legislators and ask them to pass groundwater legislation this year. Our ability to irrigate crops and water livestock depends upon it. Ask your legislators to restore certainty to Wisconsin’s high capacity well permitting program this spring.
You may have never seen or even heard of Lake Beulah until now, but consider it part of the flood of evidence that groundwater issues are no longer some other state’s problem.
Paul is the Executive Director of Governmental Relations for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation. He joined the Wisconsin Farm Bureau in 1994 as Director of Governmental Relations. In 2004, Paul was named Executive Director of Governmental Relations. His lobbying responsibilities include working with the state legislature, the Governor’s office and state agencies on issues affecting Wisconsin farm families.