Mar 15, 3:13 PM EDT

Wisconsin conservationists and farmers have clashed at a hearing on a new bill that would relax high-capacity well regulations



MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- 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 even as lake home owners and conservationists lined up to oppose the proposal.

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 that the bill lets farmers know what they can and can't do. The measure strikes a balance between agriculture and tourism interest worried about depleted lakes and streams, he said.

"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 central sands 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."

Carol Elvery, a member of the Friends of Waupaca's Mirror and Shadow Lakes, told the committees she lives on Shadow Lake. She put on a pseudo-skit for the panels, asking audience members to take turns using straws to suck water from a cup she brought in an effort to show how multiple high-capacity wells can impact ground and surface water. She said the bill should set up periodic reviews of existing wells and complained that the measure wouldn't allow people to challenge the DNR study's findings.

"In my opinion, the democratic process is totally destroyed," she said.

Criste Greening, of the Citizens Water Coalition of Wisconsin, said she lives on 10-Mile Creek in Wood County. Choking up at times, she said she believes high-capacity wells are draining the creek. She said her group could "tolerate" no oversight of repairs and reconstruction but the DNR must review ownership transfers. As the bill now stands, people could transfer wells to large livestock farms that could use the wells to pump far more water than the previous owner, she said.

Coloma potato farmer Andy Diercks said central sands region farmers need high-capacity wells because the region's sandy soil doesn't retain water. He said the bill would allow farmers to "maintain generations of investment" in their operations.

Neither committee was scheduled to take any action on the bill.

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