Groundwater concerns floated as Wisconsin well regulations reduced
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories exploring local and state issues related to dairy farms.
By John R. Russett and Maureen McMullen
Owners of wells that pump more than 100,000 gallons of water a day are no longer subject to Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources review for maintenance and replacement of existing wells.
Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill June 1 that reduces DNR oversight of high-capacity wells, which are used mostly by farmers and industrial businesses.
The new law allows well owners to forego DNR review for well maintenance, reconstruction and ownership transfers.
It also allows well owners to replace existing wells to prevent contamination or to build a well of the same depth within a 75-foot radius of the original well without DNR approval.
The bill passed both houses along party lines.
Rep. Shannon Zimmerman of River Falls was among nearly 62 Republican Assembly members to vote for the bill, with only one negative vote among the caucus.
Zimmerman downplayed the bill's significance and said he concluded from WDNR studies that the environmental impacts of high-capacity wells — as well as standard wells — are unknown.
"As far as the District 30, it's probably minimal impact," Zimmerman said. "We're not a district with a substantial amount of high-capacity wells. I think in terms of its relevance, it's probably minimal."
David Kruschke, president of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation chapter in St. Croix County, said the new law helps streamline the well repair process.
"When a high-capacity well breaks down, you need to fix it immediately because it's for irrigation and you can't wait two months," he said, adding DNR review can take longer.
The delay, he said, could cause the loss of an entire crop.
Kruschke lives in New Richmond, where he operates a 110-cow dairy herd and farms several hundred acres of land.
In the 40 years his family has pumped water out of his farm's high-capacity wells, Kruschke said the water level has yet to change.
"We have to report water levels every year, plus we have to report how much water we've pumped out every year," he said.
But opponents of the new law worry it offers too little to prevent operators from depleting rural residents' water supply.
Checks and balances
Kim Dupre with Emerald Clean Water for All said the law reflects a disregard for rural residents.
"There's no checks and balances," Dupre said. "That's what makes it frustrating for people who live in rural areas: what the industrial producers need is so much more important than everyone around them that water can be taken from the rest of us to meet their needs."
For local farmer Jody Lenz, the potential pitfalls of this bill stem from its shortsightedness.
"It's so easy to be in the here and now, because there's enough to deal with here and now," she said, but argued the future needs to be an equally important part of the discussion.
Rarely do farmers talk about who will own their farm in 30 years, 40 years, Lenz said.
Lenz, who owns and operates Threshing Table, a community supported agriculture farm in Star Prairie and participates in the St. Croix County Ground and Surface Water Quality Study Group, said consolidation of land into fewer hands alongside the expansion of existing farms has developed an alarming trend.
"My concern is that as large entities purchase large tracts of land, they're not just buying the land, but they're buying these wells," she said. "And as water and clean water becomes more scarce, what's to stop a company from saying 'we're going to buy this large farm' and really what they're buying is our groundwater."
Zimmerman argued the bill has drawn far more attention than warranted, primarily because it deals with high-capacity wells.
"I've seen this all over; once the word 'high-capacity' goes into a bill, everyone freaks out," he said. "All we did in this bill is allow you to get property you thought was there; does that mean that it's no longer subject to DNR inspection? Not at all."
Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, whose district includes Pierce County, refuted Zimmerman's claims of the bill's benign nature.
"I want this issue to be resolved through legislation, but I'm worried it's going to be resolved by the court," she said. "When groundwater is polluted and another farmer's ability to farm is encroached upon, there are legal issues that need to be resolved."
Vinehout's concern with the bill stems from the lack of oversight after the initial application process for high-capacity wells.
"The bill seems fairly simple, and there were farmers who said the system was onerous and they wanted to be able to reconstruct, replace or sell their farm and keep their well permit," she said. "When I started digging through the details of how DNR assesses groundwater, I realized this is the only time the DNR does an assessment of what the health of the groundwater is."
Wisconsin Farmers Union opposed the bill, primarily for its lack of continued oversight of high-capacity wells, claiming the new legislation has the potential to handcuff future farmers' water needs.
Lenz, a WFU member, said much of this leads to relaxed regulation, with larger agricultural operations reaping the benefits of diminished oversight.
"I think there's a fear that if we don't support Big Ag and all that it asks for, we are not supporting agriculture," she said. That fear, according to Lenz, has led to the relatively recent rollback of regulation legislation focused on concentrated animal feeding operations.
Chad and Mary Enerson, neighbors to Emerald Sky Dairy, are no strangers to navigating a gamut of regulation.
Chad Enerson at one point hoped to put a salvage yard on the property, but was dissuaded by the mandated testing and modifications it would require.
He works in a highly regulated industry — nuclear power — and the pond on their property would require careful compliance to state regulations as they planned the septic system for their would-be new home.
But the same regulatory stringency, he continued, doesn't seem to apply to large farm operations.
"I'm really surprised at the lack of regulation oversight, the disparity," he said. "If I plopped a nuclear reactor down here, everybody would freak out and make me test the water. ... Why is the big farm getting a pass when everyone else has all these rules they have to follow?"
For the Enersons, two firmly self-identified Republicans, the prospect of advocating for more regulation has not been an easy platform to stand behind.
"I firmly believe that people should be allowed to do on their own property what they they want to do on their own property, as long as it's safe for everyone around them," Mary Enerson said.