PLAINFIELD — Long Lake has lost its shoreline. Dock after dock dead-ends in the weeds. It looks more like an unmowed lawn with a pond in the middle than a place where families used to water ski and fish.

Once up to 12 feet deep, the lake is now closer to three, having bounced back slightly since 2006 when the lake dried up completely.

“Long Lake was once a trophy bass lake. So when we moved here, in the first two years, my boys were catching bass like crazy,” said Brian Wolf, who owns a cabin on Long Lake. “It was like catching fish in a barrel.”

In the six-county area known as Wisconsin’s Central Sands — made up of Adams, Portage, Marquette, Wood, Waushara and Waupaca counties — residents like Wolf have watched water levels in lakes and small streams drop for years. Twenty miles north, a cold-water trout stream, the Little Plover River, just landed on American Rivers’ list of the country’s 10 most endangered rivers because of its declining flow.

The receding water levels have come as the number of high-capacity wells — those that can draw 100,000 gallons of water per day — have dramatically increased.

In the early 1950s, there were fewer than 100 high-capacity wells in the Central Sands, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. Today, there are more than 3,000 — 40 percent of the state’s total.

Farmers say they need the water to irrigate crops like potatoes and corn.

“Our groundwater is not decreasing,” said Duane Maatz, head of the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association, an Antigo-based group representing 140 growers. “If the flows are different, there has to be another reason.”

But water quality advocates and experts say the wells are drawing down surface water and affecting recreational lakes and streams.

“Every gallon of water that gets pulled out of the ground is a gallon that’s not going to the stream or lake it’s supposed to,” said George Kraft, a hydrologist with UW-Stevens Point and the UW Extension.

While water levels fluctuate based on rainfall, Kraft’s research shows that water in lakes near high-capacity wells have declined steadily since 2000 while those farther away have not. His research identifying agricultural irrigation as a factor in the drawdown was published in the journal Groundwater in 2012.

Applications on the rise

Applications for well permits are up dramatically, said Eric Ebersberger, the DNR water use section chief, largely in response to last summer’s drought and the high price of corn. Well applications grew from 276 in 2011 to 416 in 2012, and they continue to be high this year, DNR figures show.

The DNR can impose restrictions on well permits based on potential adverse environmental impacts. But its lawyers say the agency cannot take into account the cumulative effect of other owners’ wells.

And lawmakers want to keep it that way. As part of the new two-year budget that took effect July 1, the Legislature took away citizens’ ability to challenge well permits issued by the DNR even when evidence suggests the new well would contribute, along with other neighboring wells, to lower surface-water levels.

The law, which will go into effect on July 1, 2014, was sponsored by state Rep. Daniel LeMahieu, R-Cascade.

He passed along requests for comment to the office of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, which stated that the budget amendment does not change existing standards but “protects the DNR by taking the judicial branch out of the permitting process.”

Farmers support the policy, but water advocates see the measure as a sign the Legislature does not want to acknowledge a serious problem.

“Any fifth-grader can tell you that if you put too many straws in the water it’ll be gone,” said Bob Clarke, a board member of the nonprofit stewardship group Friends of the Central Sands. “For our legislators to ignore that is just wrong.”

By contrast, water withdrawals have long been tightly regulated in many Western states. And Minnesota is developing groundwater management areas to address cumulative effects of pumping in heavily irrigated regions.

DNR sued over policy

Several groups and individuals, including Friends of the Central Sands, have sued the DNR over the permitting policy, alleging it failed to protect Pleasant Lake and other nearby lakes and streams when it issued two well permits to Richfield Dairy, a proposed 4,550-head operation in Adams County.

“What the Legislature is saying is that we don’t care how high-cap wells are affecting our surface waters,” said Carl Sinderbrand, the attorney for the lead plaintiff, Pleasant Lake Management District.

Although the Supreme Court has determined that the DNR has the legal right to consider the adverse effect of a well on nearby water when issuing a permit, it did not directly address cumulative impacts, Ebersberger said.

“Let’s say your well will draw down two inches; each of your five neighbors’ will, too,” Ebersberger said. “I don’t have the authority to deny your well because your neighbors’ wells are already having an adverse impact,”

Wisconsin has almost 400,000 irrigated acres, about half of them in the Central Sands region. Without irrigation, yields in the area would drop sharply.

“We view ourselves as good guys,” said Justin Isherwood, a farmer who uses about a dozen high-capacity wells to irrigate his 1,400 acres of potatoes and other vegetables in Portage County.

“We’re raising the food, we’re getting dirty doing it, we listen to cowboy songs on the radio — how can we be to blame for anything?” Isherwood said. “It’s not easy confronting that we just might be the bull in the china shop.”

The Dairy Business Association and the potato and vegetable growers’ group both oppose cumulative impact-based regulations. Maatz said Wisconsin growers already conserve water by using state-of-the-art irrigation systems.

‘Using less and less water’

“We’re using less and less water, and yet we’re still blamed for the problems,” Maatz said. “Everybody wants to manage or regulate us out of business.”

The current policy leaves lakefront property owners like Wolf literally high and dry. In 2007, the local assessor lowered the value of lakefront property in the Long Lake area by 60 percent because of lower lake levels.

“Everybody should be able to use these lakes. I should be able to put a boat in off my dock and paddle around my lake,” Wolf said. “I should not lose my lake at the expense of these other things.”

This project was supported by The Joyce Foundation. The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

This project was supported by The Joyce Foundation. The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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Mark Pitsch is an assistant city editor for the Wisconsin State Journal and president of the Madison chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.