The head of the state Senate Natural Resources Committee wants to make it easier to drill or replace so-called high-capacity water wells and head off stricter regulation in the future.
Water pumping has become a hot topic in Wisconsin, with large agricultural interests and food processors pushing back against further restrictions while environmental groups and lake property owners favor more rules for wells that draw 100,000 or more gallons of water a day.
The conflict has come to a head in central Wisconsin where small streams and lakes, including the Little Plover River and Long Lake, have begun drying up. Groups representing large agricultural interests including potato, vegetable and cranberry growers, argue that more limits on water withdrawals would cut yields and drive them out of business.
Sen. Neal Kedzie, R-Elkhorn, is sponsoring a measure that would limit the power of the state Department of Natural Resources to regulate high-capacity water wells. Senate Bill 302, introduced last week, was debated during a four-hour hearing Wednesday before Kedzie’s committee. Nine people spoke for the bill, and 15 spoke against it.
The bill would:
• Require the state DNR to approve or deny any high-capacity-well permit application within 65 business days.
• Waive the requirement for a permit when a high-capacity well is replaced by another well within 75 feet unless it would result in additional withdrawal of groundwater.
• Bar more restrictions beyond those currently in state law for where or whether a high-capacity well can be drilled.
• Prohibit DNR from putting more restrictions on any high-capacity replacement well beyond those governing the original well.
Kedzie told the committee Wednesday that he introduced the bill to cement in place a package of regulations passed by the Legislature in 2003 in the wake of a controversial proposal in the late 1990s by international bottler Perrier to build a high-capacity well at the headwaters of an acclaimed trout stream. Those plans were later scuttled.
The law, which was endorsed by agricultural and environmental groups, allowed the DNR to protect trout streams and other important water resources from damage caused by pumping.
But Kedzie said a 2011 Supreme Court ruling created ambiguity about whether the DNR has broader authority to limit high-capacity wells to protect other waters of the state. He said he introduced the bill “to expressly limit the authority of the DNR” and to “reaffirm the legislative intent” of the 2003 law.
Nick George of the Midwest Food Processors Association said the bill “provides a level of certainty that the industry will be treated fairly and objectively by regulators.”
But Todd Ambs, a former water division administrator for the DNR, urged the committee to reject the measure. Ambs said DNR staff should be allowed to limit pumping to protect nearby groundwater and surface water.
“Why should we tie the hands of the science staff that we have entrusted to protect our natural resources?” Ambs asked.
Groups including the Wisconsin Farmers Union and Clean Wisconsin said the fact that lakes and streams are disappearing and some farmers’ wells are going dry means the existing law doesn’t work.
In written testimony, Kara O’Connor, government relations director for the family-farm group, said, “Some have glibly suggested ... the farmer should simply ‘join the crowd’ and install his or her own high-capacity well. Setting aside the significant cost of such a proposal, Wisconsin Farmers Union does not believe that this ‘arms race’ approach, with all farmers building increasingly bigger deeper wells, is a true solution.”