MaryBeth Matzek: Ruling puts high-capacity wells under greater scrutiny

This is an excerpt from a column posted at BizOpinion.

Farmers, businesses and municipalities looking to drill high-capacity wells will face additional scrutiny following a recent judicial decision.

Earlier this month, Administrative Law Judge Jeffrey D. Boldt ruled the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources needs to consider the “cumulative impact” of any proposed high-capacity wells before granting approval. The ruling stemmed from a lawsuit filed after the DNR approved Richfield Dairy’s application for two wells to provide the dairy with about 72.5 million gallons of water annually. A group of Adams County residents concerned about falling lake levels filed the suit against the DNR saying the state agency didn’t take into account the area’s other wells and their cumulative effect on the region’s groundwater and surface water when issuing the approval.

“This ruling isn’t just about agriculture. It’s about the availability of groundwater and that it’s not some unlimited resource,” says attorney Carl Sinderbrand, who represented the residents of nearby Pleasant Lake in the lawsuit. “It’s now up to the DNR to carefully balance the different needs of agriculture, municipalities and tourism.”

There’s a lot of competition for water and now all users will have to go through a more thorough review process before their high-capacity wells are approved, Sinderbrand says. In Wisconsin, according to the DNR, 250 billion gallons of groundwater were pumped in 2013. Of that total, large dairies use only 0.5 percent. The highest users of groundwater are agricultural irrigation (41 percent) and municipal public water (37 percent).

So while the original case may have been against a large dairy, the decision will have wide-ranging impact on all groundwater users, including farmers who use it for irrigation and cities and town who use it for drinking water, says George Kraft, a water resources professor and director of the Center for Watershed Science and Education with the University of Wisconsin- Extension UW-Stevens Point’s College of Natural Resources.

Read the full column for more