Wisconsin Conservationists, Farmers to Clash at Hearing

March 15, 2017 11:30 AM
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The Wisconsin Senate's top Republican tried to persuade his colleagues Wednesday to pass a measure that would relax high-capacity well regulations, saying the move would give farmers regulatory certainty.

The Legislature has been wrestling for years with how to regulate high-capacity wells, defined as wells that can withdraw more than 100,000 gallons of water per day. Conservationists fear such wells deplete groundwater, lakes and streams, particularly in the central sands region in the state's midsection. The issue has gained importance because more large livestock farms have been sinking high-capacity wells to hydrate their herds and other farmers are looking for large-scale irrigation methods.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, a Juneau Republican, introduced a bill last month that would allow well repairs, replacement, reconstruction and ownership transfers without state oversight. Within four years, the Department of Natural Resources would have to complete a study of water bodies in the state's central sands region to determine if special measures are needed to protect streams and lakes from depletion. Lake associations would be allowed to sink new high-capacity wells to replenish lakes. Fitzgerald introduced the same bill last session but it died in the Assembly.

Fitzgerald told the Senate's labor committee and Assembly's agriculture committee during a packed public hearing on the bill that it would let farmers know what they can and can't do. He said the bill strikes a balance between agriculture and tourism interests worried about wells draining lakes.

"I don't want any lakes to dry up. I don't want any streams to dry up," Fitzgerald said. "But I'm also not going to hamstring an industry that's the backbone of this state."

Tamas Houlihan, executive director off the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association, said the bill wouldn't authorize existing wells to draw any additional water, and that requiring DNR approval of changes to existing permitted wells would be redundant.

He said farmers could lose a crop in a day if a well fails, and they should be allowed to make repairs quickly. Clear ownership transfers will preserve property values, he added.

Tammy Wood, of Elroy, told the committees that the bill would "fleece" the area's resources.

"I just don't see how giving carte blanche rights to these wells does anything to benefit us, especially in this day and age when water is sacred," she said. "It just doesn't make sense to the regular people of Wisconsin why this is being pushed."

The hearing room, the largest in the state Capitol, was jammed with people waiting to testify. Several dozen people stood around the room's edges; others sat in an overflow room. The hearing was expected to stretch until early evening. Neither committee was scheduled to take any action on the bill.

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