All Is Not Well with Wells

By Penny Bernard-Schaber

Wisconsin’s waters belong to everyone, not just a few. That is the essence of the public trust doctrine, which has been a part of our laws and our Constitution since our territorial days. Unfortunately, recent actions by Gov. Walker and the Republicans in the Legislature have undermined the fair use of our waters for all, especially Lake Winnebago.

The newest threat to the waters in the Fox Valley is the proliferation of high-capacity wells. A well is defined as high-capacity when it is permitted to pump more than 100,000 gallons of water per day. In the Fox Valley region, these wells are used most often for industrial agriculture, especially confined-animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, though in other parts of the state, they are also used for municipal water supplies and mining operations. There are currently almost 250 high-capacity wells drawing from the watershed that includes Lake Winnebago. That means 25 million gallons of water are pumped out of our watershed every day, and it has begun to show a noticeable impact on our surface waters.

The public trust doctrine is supposed to protect our waters from overuse. In Lake Beulah Management District vs. DNR, the Wisconsin Supreme Court held that, when deciding to permit a new well, the DNR could not simply look at that well in isolation, but also needs to consider the cumulative impact of the wells in the region. Unfortunately, new legislation has eroded the protection from cumulative impacts. A provision in the 2013-2015 budget bill weakened this requirement, when it removed the ability of citizens to challenge well permits in court on the basis that the DNR did not consider the well’s cumulative impact. A new bill under consideration goes even further: Senate Bill 302 would eliminate the requirement for the DNR to consider the cumulative impact of multiple high-capacity wells.

The importance of protecting our surface water levels is never more apparent than during sturgeon spearing season. Lake Winnebago is one of only two lakes in the country to offer a sturgeon spearing season, but low water levels in Lake Winnebago put it in jeopardy. Lower water is muddier, making it harder to see and harvest the fish. More importantly, though, lower water levels also hold less oxygen, which means the lake would not be able to support as many fish, and could lead to die-offs in the winter when the water freezes.

The 2014 sturgeon spearing season is just finishing as I write this column. It is always fun to watch the shanties go up on the lake and to hear and feel the excitement surrounding sturgeon spearing. It looks like we had a good season this year; the ice was very thick, the water was clear and many large fish were harvested. Sturgeon spearing has a long, proud tradition in the Fox Valley, but it has only been possible because of careful management over decades. There are strict limits on the size and number of fish that can be harvested, and these rules are enforced not just by the DNR, but by hundreds of volunteer Sturgeon Guards, who keep watch on the lake to protect the sturgeon from poachers. All the care the Fox Valley sporting community puts in to making sure no one takes more than their share of sturgeon will be wasted—and our sturgeon tradition will be lost—if we don’t put the same effort into making sure people aren’t taking more than their share of water.

SB 302 had a public hearing in September and its Assembly companion bill had a hearing on January 30, 2014. These bills have been passed out of their Committees and both bills are available for scheduling for a vote in the legislature. I would encourage you to contact your legislator through the legislative hotline at 800-362-9472, encourage them to vote against SB 302 and AB 679. Ask them to protect Wisconsin waters.

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