Business leaders and water advocates agree that a new Republican effort to rewrite Wisconsin’s much-contested law on large-scale water extraction is both flawed and fixable.

But they disagreed sharply on almost everything about how the proposal should be changed before it becomes law.

A legislative hearing Tuesday aired the bitter, ongoing struggle that has pitted an expanding circle of heavy groundwater users against those who say their water supplies are dwindling, including lakefront property owners, fishing enthusiasts, smaller farms and people whose drinking water comes from wells.

“We have to accept that navigable waters have been impacted and we have to act,” said Rep. Scott Krug, a Nekoosa Republican who is a co-sponsor of Senate Bill 291. “The cause is debated, but the time is now for action.”

Several speakers lauded the bill’s author, Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Allouez, saying the proposal is the Legislature’s first acknowledgement that streams have dried up and lake shores have receded as high-capacity wells have spread.

Cowles, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, which staged the hearing, said he and others worked for a year on the proposal that attempts to balance the interests of the state’s water users.

Industrial-size farms, food processors and frac sand mines are among those that have been using the wells that pump 100,000 gallons or more per day.

Cowles’ bill would make it easier for businesses to obtain high-capacity permits across most of the state while creating an avenue for the state Department of Natural Resources to seek legislative approval to give more attention to “sensitive resource areas” where lake and stream water levels have fallen.

The bill proposes to begin the process of designating four shrinking Waushara County lakes as sensitive and eligible for closer regulation.

But representatives of lake property owners and people with private wells said problems are much wider spread. The bill proposes a process for providing additional care for distressed areas that could take up to 10 years of study, debate and appeals without slowing the installation and operation of additional new high-capacity wells.

“It’s going to be too late,” said Michael Engleson, executive director of Wisconsin Lakes, which represents 80,000 lakefront property owners and others. “This bill goes too far in protecting operators of high-capacity wells at the expense of almost everybody else.”

Others said the bill ignores depletion of wetlands and groundwater by focusing solely on lakes and streams, and they criticized a provision business interests have been demanding that would prevent reviews of a well’s effects on the environment after an initial permit was granted.

Business leaders object

For their part, business leaders objected to allowing quasi-judicial contested case hearings as part of the process for creating more closely regulated sensitive resource areas, and they warned that some language in the bill was too vague and would give the DNR and the courts too much leeway to interpret.

“We’ve got to make sure we’re not leaving too much up to the Department (of Natural Resources) and the courts,” said Lucas Vebber, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce environmental director.

The law needs to include details such as the methods the DNR could use to establish standards for lake levels and stream flows to keep authority in the hands of elected lawmakers, Vebber said.

Cowles said a second law would need to be enacted to provide more specifics.

Business operators are now facing too much uncertainty about whether they can obtain a high-capacity well permit and about whether the permit will be renewed if they make repairs or improvements or if they sell their property, said Tamas Houlihan, executive director of the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association.

Several business representatives talked about needing certainty when making investment decisions. An owner of lakefront property in Waushara County said he had a similar need.

“We also want certainty that the lake we bought property on stays in existence,” said Dan Trudell of the Huron Lake Association.

Wisconsin Farm Bureau lobbyist Paul Zimmerman was among those who spoke against a provision that would require a special environmental review of a high capacity well within 1,600 feet — instead of 1,200 feet from a trout stream or other especially valuable waters.

Critics say damage done

The bill does nothing to repair the damage already done to lakes and streams, said Bob Clarke, a board member at Friends of the Central Sands.

An attorney for the town of Saratoga, the site of a proposed farming operation that has applied for permits for 33 high capacity wells on land straddling Wood and Portage counties, questioned a provision of the bill limiting the ability of regulators to consider cumulative effects of multiple wells.

Because the land for the proposed Golden Sands farm is spread across six parcels that don’t border each other, the collective impact on hundreds of nearby residential wells wouldn’t be considered by regulators deciding on a permit.

George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and a former DNR secretary, said some parts of the bill would require more DNR staff.

The DNR estimated that if the bill is enacted it would cost the state $787,000 in one-time costs and $294,100 annually to make changes required.


Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.