SB 291 Groundwater Pumping Bill Amendment In Draft

Hearing scheduled Wednesday February 10, 11:00 AM, Assembly Parlor of State Capitol

A draft substitute amendment to the SB291 groundwater pumping bill is circulating. SB 291 was authored by Senator Rob Cowles of Green Bay and has a companion bill AB477 in the Assembly, sponsored by Rep. Scott Krug  (

(A “substitute amendment” in effect “kills” an existing bill and replaces it with another legislative proposal.)

The draft amendment has many features of the original bill, as discussed here: ( ).  What bill proponents like is that in most cases high capacity well approvals become virtually automatic, even when lakes and streams will be dried by the cumulative impacts of pumping.  These proponents argue that without unfettered access to groundwater, economic development and investment in Wisconsin will decline, and that protections offered in this bill sufficiently protect surface waters.

For lake, stream, and wetland advocates, major concerns about the original bill remain, including these:

  1. Protections for surface waters are substantially rolled back. DNR would be required to issue new well approvals even where existing wells are already harming lakes and streams and wetlands. Some one hundred fifty well applications now being analyzed by DNR would almost automatically and immediately be approved.
  2. The “Sensitive Resource Areas” designation process, in which pumping impacted lakes and streams might be fixed, is convoluted and political – requiring two sign-offs by the legislature. The arcane process laid out in the bill probably means that few, if any, SRAs will ever be created, and thus few, if any, water bodies will be ever be repaired.

The result of rolling back cumulative impact protections while creating the cumbersome SRA designation process seems like trying to fill holes with a teaspoon while digging new holes with a backhoe – additional waters are likely to become harmed faster than already-harmed waters can be repaired.

3. Provides “forever approvals” for owners of high capacity wells and allows for water pumping rights to be sold with property, potentially moving Wisconsin to a western style water law.

Pre-designating areas for SRA study

Perhaps the biggest change in the substitute amendment is that it pre-designates certain parts of the state for study to see if they should be recommended as SRAs, but does not actually designate them as an SRA. The three areas are: Town of Saratoga in Wood County, Town of Oasis in Waushara County, and a six square mile around Pleasant Lake in southern Waushara County.

To understand what this pre-designation does and doesn’t do, we need to lay out the proposed SRA designation process. Ordinarily, the process for SRA designation starts with concerned citizens petitioning DNR for a study.  In their petition, citizens must present scientific evidence, signed by a licensed professional, that their lakes and streams are being harmed by pumping.  If DNR finds the evidence compelling, DNR is required to seek permission to study from the legislature’s joint finance committee. That committee is free to grant or deny the permission to study.

Permission to study is not an SRA designation!

After the study is completed, and if DNR concludes that SRA status is merited, DNR gives a copy of their report to the clerks of the Assembly and Senate, who pass that report on to chairs of environment committees.  The chairs are not compelled to do anything with the report – they are free to throw it away or use it as a door stop.  To become SRAs, the appropriate committees would have to draft legislation creating them in statute, and both houses of the legislature would have to pass that legislation.  The chances of this would seem small.

To re-cap then, the pre-designation step in the substitute amendment merely directs DNR to study the three areas, after which DNRs report on whether or not the areas should become SRAs goes to legislative committees who may ignore it or draft a bill that creates the SRAs in statute. Both legislative houses then must pass the bill, and it must survive a possible Governor’s veto.

In addition to the concerns about certainty of process, the areas designated by the legislature for study might be too small to help the lakes and streams within the areas. Around Pleasant Lake or some of the Plainfield lakes, for instance, few of the impacting wells actually lie in the designated area.  Unable to consider pumping impacts across a broader area, levels in these lakes would likely improve little.

One thought on “SB 291 Groundwater Pumping Bill Amendment In Draft

  1. I and others have a concern about water quality and high capacity wells. More and more irrigation systems are being installed in farmland that was once covered with trees. In just the past five years thousands of acres of 15 to 20 year old red pine trees have been up-rooted and burned so the land under it could be used for crops such as potatoes and corn. In order to make this soil productive, vast amounts of water has to be pulled from the ground, significantly reducing the ground water table. This also has an impact on lakes and streams. I’m asking you to oppose Senate Bill 291. I and others feel the approval of Senate Bill 291 would further erode what little protection is left of water quality and water levels in central Wisconsin.


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