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Senator Moulton Column – High Capacity Wells

by Senator Terry Moulton

Wisconsin’s people have always recognized the importance of our water. The Ojibwe, Oneida and other tribes used area waterways for travel, fishing and growing food.  Fur traders, missionaries and miners settled and lived along the same shores and early settlers relied on these waters for survival and farming on the frontier.  Today, as Wisconsin industry and farming grows, we must consider how to regulate high capacity wells and balance our economic interests with environmental concerns.

 The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in the 2011 Lake Beulah Lake Management District v. State of Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources decision that the state has a general duty to consider the environmental impact of proposed wells that pump 100,000 gallons or more per day. The decision granted the DNR regulatory authority over these high capacity wells at a time when more and more municipalities, farms, and industries are utilizing high capacity wells to meet their water needs.

Since the Lake Beulah v. DNR decision, the sale or even repair of a well triggers a state review where the DNR may dramatically limit the volume of water withdrawn from a well.  This review creates great uncertainty for buyers as agricultural land value and output are directly tied to access to water.  Under the current system, there is no guarantee that they will have access to the same amount of water as the previous owner, which has a chilling effect on the sale, transfer, and preservation of farmland.  Meanwhile neighbors and others are concerned with the environmental impact of high capacity wells on groundwater and nearby waterways.  In response to these concerns, two bills have been introduced to give well owners and farmers greater certainty, while protecting our water from overuse.

Senate Bill 239 tries to accommodate the DNR’s new regulatory responsibilities while protecting owners of existing high capacity wells. The bill would allow owners to repair or reconstruct an existing well in conformance with existing rules, ensure that ownership of high capacity wells can be transferred, and allow owners to replace a failing well within 75 feet of the existing well, all without triggering a DNR review. This bill attempts to increase regulatory certainty and save farmers and business owners’ time, money and paperwork without reducing DNR oversight.

The second bill, Senate Bill 291, includes the same provisions from SB 239 that deal with existing wells but also attempts to tackle the approval of new wells for everything from municipal water systems to new or expanding farming operations.  SB 291 would require the DNR to approve applications within 65 days or, if a special review is required, 130 days. The proposal would also create a process for establishing “sensitive resource areas” by ordering the DNR to conduct special environmental reviews in certain areas.  Under this bill, areas with fragile hydrology and already low water tables, like the heavily-farmed Central Sands will automatically undergo this review.  If an area is found to be at risk, the DNR will recommend the legislature designate it a “sensitive resource area” and create restrictions and other rules specific to the conditions of the area.

Recent public hearings made it clear that neither of these proposals gives either side everything they want.  As the legislature weighs these proposals, I look forward to finding a solution that will create certainty for property owners while protecting and enhancing our precious natural resources. I believe that a predictable and stable regulatory environment for high capacity wells is important, but it must be balanced with high environmental standards that protect our water resources for future generations.