Number of high capacity wells continues to increase in Wisconsin

By LeAnn R. Ralph

MENOMONIE — Since the 1970s, the number of high capacity wells in Wisconsin — and in Dunn County — has taken an exponential jump.

As of last year, high cap wells pumped 300 billion gallons of water for the year, said Bob Smail, a groundwater use specialist with the state Department of Natural Resources, at a forum on groundwater held by the Dunn County Planning, Resources and Development Committee November 19.

About 50 people attended the forum at the Dunn County Judicial Center.

The amount of water pumped in 2012 was 35 percent more than in 2011, Smail said, noting that the increased water usage was due to drought conditions and that agricultural usage of water surpassed the amount of water used by public municipal wells.

Of 300 billion gallons of water used, 35 billion was used in Northwest Wisconsin, he said.

The amount of water from high cap wells would be enough fill Lake Wissota six times, or enough to fill Lambeau Field 600 times, Smail said.

Frac sand accounted for about a half a percent of the water used in 2011, but that number will change for 2012, he said.

In Dunn County, agricultural irrigation accounts for 83 percent of the water used, Smail said.

The amount of water from high cap wells would be enough to cover all of Dunn County with a half inch of water, he said.

In the 1960s, municipalities were the principal owners of high capacity wells. In 1970, irrigation became more popular, and the biggest jump in the number of high cap wells was between 1970 and 1980, Smail said.

A dry spell in the 1970s created more interest in irrigation, he noted.

In 2012, 35 high cap wells were approved for Northwest Wisconsin, with 15 of those being in Dunn County. So far in 2013, 76 have been approved for Northwest Wisconsin, with 20 in Dunn County; in 2011, 26 new wells were approved in Northwest Wisconsin and eight new wells were approved for Dunn County, Smail said.

A combination of drought in recent years and high grain prices have created even more demand for the high capacity wells, he said.

Eric Ebersberger, the DNR’s water use section chief, said Wisconsin currently has 13,000 high capacity wells.

Cumulative effect

One issue that has been in the news lately is whether the DNR has the ability to consider the cumulative effects of high capacity wells in a certain area.

In 2004, the state added additional environmental review criteria for high capacity wells that included whether the high cap well would affect a public utility well or whether it was within 1,200 feet of an exceptional or outstanding water resource, such as a trout stream, Ebersberger said.

In 2011, the state Supreme Court ruled on the Lake Beulah case that considered whether the Village of East Troy’s municipal wells had an impact on the lake and whether the DNR has the authority to consider environmental impact, he said.

The Supreme Court ruled that the DNR does, indeed, have the authority to consider environmental impact if there is scientific evidence of harm to surface waters, Ebersberger said.

On the other hand, attorneys for the DNR say state law does not give the DNR authority to consider the cumulative impacts of high capacity wells, he said.

Recent legislation introduced into the Wisconsin legislature would remove the DNR’s authority to regulate the effects of a high capacity well on nearby wells, Ebersberger said.

The proposed legislation also would limit the conditions the DNR could set on high cap wells and would give the DNR 65 days to approve the high cap well applications, he said.

Chippewa County

Dan Masterpole, county conservationist for Chippewa County, pointed out that we have reached a point of awareness about the need to consider the impacts on groundwater and the management of groundwater.

New demands on the groundwater include increased irrigation for crops and an increased use of water in processing frac sand, he said.

Frac sand will create a demand for water for the next 20 years; irrigation is more of an “insurance policy” for farmers growing crops, Masterpole said.

Chippewa County currently has almost a dozen frac sand mines that have received permits, he noted.

Chippewa County, in conjunction with the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, has started a five-year study of groundwater in western Chippewa County, Masterpole said.

According to maps, the study area extends nearly as far west Colfax.

The groundwater study is intended to find out information to assist in informed decision-making for the general public, mine operators, regulatory agencies and local units of government, Masterpole said.

The study will develop flow models and will disseminate information, he said.

Information gleaned from the five-year groundwater study will provide some answers about groundwater in similar hydrogeologic areas, Masterpole said.

The study includes stream gauges, monitoring wells, and will compile information from high capacity well records in the study area and will examine recharge rates, Masterpole said.

The next public informational meeting on the five-year groundwater study will be held in March of 2014; the final report will be issued in 2017, he said.

Masterpole said we can expect to see more irrigation in the future for cash grain crops and for frac sand mining.

But along with the expanded use of high capacity wells, “we will also see the expanded use of water conservation practices,” he said.

“The study itself is one step on a long journey,” Masterpole said.