The 2015-2016 Wisconsin legislative session is coming to a close without action changing groundwater pumping protections. One bill, SB 239 / AB 874, cleared the Senate on March 15, but with amendments that needed to be reconciled with the Assembly version. As the Assembly is out of session, that bill appears effectively dead.
The 2015-16 session saw multiple groundwater bills and amendments arise in both houses, and in different committees in the same house. Most were aimed at removing surface water protections, or high capacity well roadblocks, depending on one’s view, for high capacity well applicants and owners. SB 72 / AB 105 was the exception, as it sought to establish processes for managing groundwater in areas where pumping is unduly affecting lakes and streams and wetlands. The so-called “Mason-Miller” bill, after chief sponsors Sen. Mark Miller and Rep. Corey Mason, languished without being taken up in committee.
Supporters of less protection – removing roadblocks included the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association, Dairy Business Association, and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. They maintained that groundwater pumping has little or no impacts on lakes and streams and wetlands. Further, they argued, recent court decisions that partially protect surface waters from new high capacity wells imposed hardships on their industries. Their industries need freedom from “uncertainty.” Their meaning of “uncertainty” was ill-defined, but seemed to mean any potential denial of a high capacity well approval except in the very limited circumstances prescribed in current statute. Current statute is almost entirely ineffective in protecting surface waters from high capacity well pumping.
Opponents of less protection argued that court-mandated protections are important and necessary in preventing more lakes and streams from being harmed by unmanaged pumping. Fewer protections means less recreation, property value loss, a reduction in tourist economy, and property tax declines, they professed.
Some key provisions of the “removing protections or roadblocks” legislation included these:
- Prohibiting DNR from considering the cumulative impacts of multiple wells when evaluating new high capacity well applications.
The effect of this provisions is that when a lake or stream or wetland is significantly impacted by pumping, even to the point of drying, DNR would still be required to issue additional high capacity well approvals that would cause further impacts.
- Studies, and possible designation of areas where pumping is having substantial impacts.
Existing studies have already established numerous areas where pumping is having large impacts on surface waters. These new studies are meant to help DNR recommend management strategies to restore harmed water bodies, including reducing high capacity well pumping. On its face a good proposal, objections included a highly political process that was unlikely to result in any areas actually being restored from pumping impacts.
Some likened removing protections from cumulative impacts while instituting a cumbersome study-and-designate repair process is like hole-digging with a steam-shovel and hole-filling with a teaspoon. Possibly a good analogy.
- Provides “forever approvals” for owners of high capacity wells and allows for water pumping privileges to be sold with property.
Most or all permits, approvals, and licenses in Wisconsin have an expiration or renewal date – think about your driver’s license. Currently, high capacity wells only need to be re-approved when they are repaired, replaced, or sold with property. This proposed provision would make approvals permanent and allow high capacity wells along with their approved pumping capacity to be transferred, bought, and sold.
Proponents of “forever approvals” point to the positive effect of being able to, say, transfer ownership of a farm well from one generation to the next Opponents point out that this amounts to an effective privatization of the public’s water, something that Wisconsin has scrupulously avoided, and which has become problematic in western US water management.
Senator Fitzgerald’s spokeswoman, in an email to the Wisconsin State Journal stated that Senate approval “…signals to Wisconsin’s agriculture community that legislators need take this issue seriously and understand action is needed…”
Perhaps expect the same issues to re-emerge in the 2016-2017 legislative cycle?