News of the Day - 10/08/15

Fight over High Capacity Wells Lands in the Capitol

Lawmakers Wednesday considered how to balance the demands of large farms and other high-capacity well users with the interests of the environment and other property owners — the first in a series of statehouse debates expected this fall over one of Wisconsin's most valuable resources.

The packed hearing Wednesday in the Senate agriculture committee represented just the latest round of battles between businesses who say they rely on high-capacity wells to create jobs and environmentalists who say the wells pose a threat to the health of streams, lakes and wetlands, including those in Wisconsin's central sands region.

The bill by Sen. Rick Gudex (R-Fond du Lac) would allow large wells to live on indefinitely by allowing their owners to rebuild them and move them slightly without permits. Farm and business groups say that gives them needed certainty while water advocates say it can amount to a perpetual permit to dry out the landscape.

A more expansive bill being drafted by Sen. Rob Cowles (R-Green Bay) is expected in the coming days, and so part of the debate Wednesday spilled over into the larger issues at play. That still unreleased proposal is expected to have a hearing soon before a separate panel, the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee.

Under current law, users must get permits for high-capacity wells drawing more than 100,000 gallons of water per day. The bill would still require the well owner to notify the state of any reconstruction work but would eliminate the need to seek a permit when replacing a high-capacity well within 75 feet of the existing shaft.

Gudex said his bill sought to provide certainty for landowners and businesses that their well wouldn't be abruptly shut down. He said the measure simply dealt with wells that are already in place.

"It's become undeservedly controversial," Gudex said. "Everyone wants to make more of this than it is."

Larry Lynch, a hydrogeologist with the state Department of Natural Resources, said applications for high-capacity wells have risen over the last decade.

Lynch said over the past four years the agency has had about 1,500 applications for high-capacity wells and that 40 of those cases involved well owners seeking to reauthorize their wells. In 11 of those 40 cases, the agency put conditions on the permits such as moving a well farther from a trout stream, he said.

Under the bill, well owners shouldn't be able to have a larger impact on state waters when replacing a well, Lynch said. But he also said that before 2004, the DNR didn't consider the effects from proposed wells the way it does today.

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