Jake Macholl has been drawn to springs, to their mystery and their clear, cold water, since he was a boy growing up in northern Wisconsin and his grandfather passed along some of the magic of such places in the stories he told.
Now, Macholl, working for the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, is just about done with a statewide survey of springs that will not only fill in considerable missing knowledge about the location, size and number of Wisconsin's springs but may also play an important role in strengthening legislation aimed at protecting the state's threatened groundwater resources.
After nearly two years of work, including long hours spent poring over two historical surveys and long days afield battling mosquitoes and stinging nettles, Macholl has tallied 10,851 springs in Wisconsin. And his studies of the size of the springs show a much-heralded 2004 groundwater law protects about 3 percent of those springs.
Springs, Macholl laments, have not fared well across the state in the face of development and growing numbers of high-capacity agricultural wells. He estimates he's found close to 1,000 springs that have dried up in the last five years, including many in Dane County where growth and the demand for water is drawing the water levels in the deep underground aquifer down faster than nature can replenish them.
"There are so many that are dry," Macholl said. "Dane County wins that one. So many springs being pumped dry."
Groundwater law Macholl's survey had its beginnings in the passage of the state's groundwater law in 2004. That law, however, protects only those springs that flow at a rate of at least 1 cubic feet per second, or 7.5 gallons per second, at least 80 percent of the time. But Macholl's work shows only about 235 springs of the nearly 11,000 that he found meet that criteria.
Part of the problem, Macholl said, is that comprehensive data on springs, including such basic information as the number and size of springs in the state, wasn't available to the authors of the law. But at least, he said, the law made provisions for updating the data and making necessary changes.
Macholl's study, paid for by a $138,000 Joyce Foundation grant secured by the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, will be presented soon to the governor's groundwater advisory council that will make recommendations on amendments early next year.
George Meyer, executive director of the federation, hopes Macholl's study will change the minds of some who don't want more extensive protection for the state's springs.
"The current groundwater law is extremely deficient," Meyer said.
But toughening the law to protect more springs may be difficult. Agricultural representatives on the advisory council have argued that the loss of some springs and other surface waters is a necessary compromise to grow crops such as vegetables that require irrigation. Keith Meyers, with Layne Northwest, a company that drills high capacity wells, is a member of the groundwater advisory council and said such a proposal will receive considerable opposition from others on the panel.
Meyers said he is willing to look at the new data but is comfortable with the law as it stands.
"What kind of paperwork would it entail?" Meyers asked of a tougher springs standard. "I don't see a problem with the way it is now."
\ 'Special places'
Springs, often wreathed in local story and legend, are crucial parts of the natural water system, places where the groundwater upon which we so depend becomes visible, bubbling up from stone aquifers deep in the ground.
"Springs are special places," said Kenneth Bradbury, a hydrogeologist with the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey. "I think of them as a window into the groundwater system."
Generally, Bradbury said, the health of a spring is directly related to the health of the groundwater system that feeds the spring's flow. Springs, even small ones, are crucial sources of water for trout streams and home to numerous species, such as the Hine's emerald dragonfly, that are threatened or endangered.
A spring generally appears when the side of a hill or a valley bottom intersects a flowing body of groundwater at or below the local water table. At that point, the groundwater is so near the surface that it overflows. Many springs in Wisconsin create crystalline pools with sandy bottoms and the groundwater boils up through hypnotic clouds of sifting, moving sand. Pheasant Branch Creek in Middleton rises from such a spring north of town. It rests at the foot of a steep, oak-covered hill and gurgles forth from a number of sand boils.
The very nature of such places, their frequently remote and pastoral surroundings and the clarity of the water they produce, gives rise to a fascination. Macholl, during his journeys into the field in search of little-known springs, often encountered people who provided a wealth of information about their local springs. Many times, he said, they were elderly people who carried with them the stories that had grown up around a well-known spring.
"They'd know all the history," Macholl said. "Sometimes, it would be the guy who 70 years ago made lemonade from the water. The old guys, they like their springs, I'll tell you that."
\ Big Springs
Macholl sometimes stumbled across springs that hadn't shown up in historical surveys. He got a call, for example, from Tim White, with the Mount Horeb Historical Society, about a spring near Mount Vernon called Big Springs. White had some historical information about the spring and wanted more information from Macholl about its flow and importance.
Macholl went with White to take a look at the spring and, to his surprise, found an enormous watercress-choked spring adjacent to Mount Vernon Creek, beneath a wooded hill and surrounded by a bower of over-arching cedars and oaks. Eventually, Macholl trekked back to the spring with his waders and backpack full of measuring equipment and found the spring was pumping 2,370 gallons of water per minute into the adjacent trout stream.
White provided stories and photographs that showed just how important the spring has been to Mount Vernon. The spring, White's research showed, is what initially attracted settlers to the area. A photograph from a Fourth of July celebration around 1890 shows hundreds of people, including the local coronet band, gathered on the banks of the spring, which boasts thick growths of watercress just as it does today.
Despite this apparent fondness for such places, Macholl found an almost cavalier disregard for springs as he crossed and recrossed the state. He was dismayed to come across spring after spring being dug up to build subdivisions and roads. He's hoping the groundwater advisory council will look closely at his warnings and heed his numbersdata that clearly shows current protections are not enough, especially for smaller springs.
After all, Macholl said, you can rebuild wetlands and prairies and other such important landscape features. But springs, gifts of ancient geologic forces and flowing from deep within the Earth, are irreplaceable.
"You can't," Macholl said, "build a spring."