MADISON — The state Senate's top Republican has resurrected a bill that would relax Wisconsin's high-capacity well regulations, setting the stage for another fight over the state's groundwater.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald introduced the measure late Tuesday afternoon. The proposal would allow people to repair, replace, reconstruct or transfer ownership in wells without approval from the state Department of Natural Resources.
The bill also would require the department to evaluate water bodies in the state's central sands region to determine if groundwater withdrawals are significantly reducing navigable streams and lake's water levels. If department officials feel special conditions should be enacted to protect the area's groundwater they could ask the Legislature to impose them.
The last part of the proposal calls for allowing lake associations and districts within the study area to construct high-capacity wells to replenish lakes where water levels have been dropping. The DNR would have to waive the permit application fee for such wells and create a grant program to help the association cover construction costs.
The Legislature has been wrestling with how to regulate high-capacity wells, defined as wells that can withdraw more than 100,000 gallons of water per day, for years. Conservationists fear such wells deplete groundwater, lakes and streams, particularly in the central sands region in the state's mid-section. The issue has come to a head recently as more large livestock farms sink high-capacity wells to hydrate their herds and other farmers look for large-scale irrigation methods.
The Senate passed an identical bill in the waning days of the last legislative session, but it died in the Assembly. That chamber passed a similar bill that would have exempted repairs and ownership transfers from DNR approval, but it died in the Senate after Republicans decided they couldn't live with a provision that would have required the loser of well nuisance actions to pay attorney fees.
Fitzgerald spokeswoman Myranda Tanck said the senator was out of town and unavailable to comment. Fitzgerald is the most powerful state senator, which means the measure is likely to pass that house. A spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos didn't immediately return a message.
Amber Meyer Smith, government relations director for environmental advocacy group Clean Wisconsin, said she was disappointed to see the Senate bill return. She said her group has always opposed exempting repairs and ownership transfer from DNR approval because it locks in existing problems. She added that the provision allowing lake associations to build high-capacity wells to replenish lakes that are drying up from well withdrawals makes no sense.
"It's an odd provision," she said. "You have one aquifer and you're drawing water from the same place regardless."
A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling said she hadn't seen the measure. Rep. Katrina Shankland, a Stevens Point Democrat who represents a large swath of Portage County in the central sands region, said in a statement that the bill does little to protect Wisconsin waters.
A message left with Wisconsin Lakes, a group that advocates for legislation to protect lake sustainability, wasn't immediately returned.
Tamas Houlihan, executive director of the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association, said the bill doesn't allow farmers to construct any new wells and uncoupling well ownership transfers from DNR oversight would protect their property values.
Paul Zimmerman, a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, said his group backs the measure. He said it would ensure that well ownership changes and repairs can go forward, protecting farmers' ability to hydrate livestock and crops. The measure also will jump-start research on how wells affect waters in the central sands, he said.
Asked why the bill allows lake associations to sink wells to replenish lakes, Zimmerman said lake levels in the sands region vary over time and the bill's provisions are meant to facilitate study of whether groundwater depletion plays a role and whether lakes can be refilled.