Many crops in this vast, sandy swath of the state would shrivel without water from thousands of high-capacity wells.
So would a multibillion-dollar industry that produces fresh potatoes, cans of green beans and bags of Doritos.
“Basically, you’d have range land,” said Ken Williams, a University of Wisconsin Extension agriculture agent in Waushara County. “It would look more or less like something you’d see out West.”
But in a state with an abundance of water, there are growing concerns about the ecological effects of irrigation and the exponential growth of large wells.
Those worries were compounded recently when state regulators began exerting less authority over construction of new high-capacity wells, which can take a potentially harmful toll on the landscape.
A “high-capacity well,” under state law, has the capability with other wells on a property to pump more than 100,000 gallons of groundwater a day. That’s equivalent to all of the showers, dishwashing and yard sprinkling that a typical family uses in a year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In the plains of the Central Sands that run roughly from Wisconsin Dells to the southern edge of Shawano County, groundwater collects in thick seams of sand and gravel, often only a few feet below the ground. The same water sprayed in graceful arcs over farm fields also feeds lakes, streams and wetlands.
It’s these competing demands between agriculture and groups worried about the health of waterways that have embroiled the region in a water war. In Wisconsin's increasingly polarized political climate, efforts to solve the problem appear nowhere in sight.
Near Stevens Point, the Little Plover River in Portage County has had sections run dry in some summers.
On Long Lake near Plainfield in Waushara County, grass and shrubs poke up from a lake that once held largemouth bass and northern pike. It’s withered to a marsh.
“There is no way I could put out a dock,” said homeowner Brian Wolf. “There is no way I could put out a boat. I can’t fish.”
“Farmers say, ‘We’re feeding the world,’ ” Wolf said. “Yes, but you are using my water.”
In 1960, in the early days of modern irrigation, there were 97 high-capacity wells in the region, state data compiled by George Kraft, a hydrogeologist at UW-Stevens Point, show.
Groundwater pumping will continue to expand in the region, according to the 2016 report of the Wisconsin Groundwater Coordinating Council, which was released last week. The council provides state agencies annual updates on groundwater issues.
By Kraft’s analysis, dozens of lakes, streams and rivers have been negatively affected by high-capacity wells.
“What we are really doing is dewatering an entire region,” he said.
And, statewide, emerging trends could further tax aquifers, the council says. The factors include the growth of industrial sand mining, which is expected to grow for another decade; the continued development of water-intensive, large-scale dairy farms; and climate trends that portend more extreme weather — drought as well as bouts of flooding.
For years, environmentalists and property owners near troubled areas in the Central Sands have demanded limits on water use. They point to Minnesota and Michigan, which both have stronger laws to protect groundwater.
The Legislature has taken up bills to protect groundwater under Democratic control in 2010, and with a Republican majority in 2016. In both instances, nothing passed.
“Our message is that the Legislature needs to come up with a real solution,” said Elizabeth Wheeler, an attorney with Clean Wisconsin. “The DNR has this duty to uphold public trust responsibilities and it has a tough time with the gaps and ambiguities in the statutes.”
But Wisconsin is moving in the opposite direction.
In a major policy shift, the Department of Natural Resources decided in June that it would no longer take into account the cumulative effects of high-capacity wells on streams, wetlands and lakes when reviewing applications for new wells.
Citing a legal opinion from Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel, DNR officials said they would comply with Schimel’s contention that the agency lacked the authority to consider the compounding effects of such water use — even if there was evidence the wells were harming state waters.
Environmentalists and property owners living near affected waters said the attorney general was ignoring other parts of state law and state’s Public Trust Doctrine, which holds that all citizens own lakes and rivers and that the courts and state law have delegated significant oversight to the DNR.
They also chafed at what they see as a tilt away from the protection of water resources.
“The underlying politics here is that big ag gets what it wants,” said Denny Caneff, who recently left his post as executive director of the River Alliance of Wisconsin after 13 years. “The pendulum has really swung to private interests over the greater public good.”
Former DNR water division administrator Todd Ambs lays part of the blame with his former agency.
“The one place we certainly don’t see the leadership is out of the DNR,” said Ambs, now executive director of Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. “The DNR is not allowed any more to take positions on legislation. They are not allowed to go to the Legislature and say, ‘We need to fix this — and here’s how.’ ”
Secretary Cathy Stepp, a former homebuilder and GOP state senator from Racine County, has said the role of the DNR is not to set policy, but to enforce laws on the books.
Business and agricultural groups praised Schimel’s decision and agreed the DNR had been overstepping its authority.
From a practical standpoint, the DNR's shift has trimmed a one-year backlog in well reviews. Drought and growing demand for water drove up applications by the hundreds. And since 2011, court decisions have prompted officials to conduct time-consuming reviews of applications to determine if the wells would harm state waters.
The backlog forced some drillers to lay off workers and it cast a cloud over land values, said Paul Roberts, owner of Roberts Irrigation Co. Inc. of Plover in Portage County.
“It’s a system that did not work,” Roberts said.
But irrigation does work and has helped the industry blossom. “Guaranteed yields and harvestability,” explained Williams, the extension agent. “On irrigated ground, you pretty much know you are going to have a crop.”
Wisconsin ranks among the top five states in potatoes, sweet corn, green beans and carrots.
According to a UW-Madison analysis in 2010, specialty crop production and processing in Wisconsin — much of it in central Wisconsin — generates $6.4 billion in annual economic activity.
Straws in a glass
Think of high-capacity wells as straws in a glass. And every year, more and more straws are tossed in.
The number of high-capacity wells in Wisconsin increased by 54% to 10,456 between 2000 and 2015, according to DNR figures.
The appetite for water has created pockets of trouble spots in the state. It prompted Waukesha’s water troubles and laid the groundwork for the approval of its historic out-of-basin bid to tap Lake Michigan water.
In 2006 and 2007, eight communities in Brown County switched to Lake Michigan as groundwater levels fell. Dane County residents also have experienced drawdowns. Lakes that historically were fed groundwater are now losing it because of the demand of high-capacity wells, according to the Wisconsin Groundwater Coordinating Council.
Worries over water are especially high in portions of eight counties that make up the 1.75 million acres of the Central Sands.
The effects of strained aquifers play out in different ways: reduced stream flows, warmer water temperatures, more algae blooms, and the most obvious — lower water levels.
On Huron Lake in Waushara County, Dan Trudell estimates that his beach has grown by 40 feet since he bought his home in 1988.
Since 1985, the level of the lake has dropped more than 7 feet, according to records from the U.S. Geological Survey. Huron Lake, like others nearby, fluctuates from year to year, depending on weather conditions. It's dropped as much as 10 feet since 1985.
“There will be a little recovery in the spring,” Trudell said. “But then we get into the pumping season.”
He blames the big center pivot pumps that inch over fields and stretch across neighboring farmland, “as far as the eye can see,” he said.
“It’s a beautiful lake, but pretty soon I’m afraid I won’t be able to put my boat in,” he said. “People see this and I think they’re going to be more reluctant to invest in a property if they think the lake is going to go away.”
On Long Lake, Brian Wolf’s property assessment has dropped about 50% since 2007 when he and his neighbors were last able to boat and fish, according to the local assessor.
The market value of land on six lakes in the Town of Oasis in Waushara County fell 4.3% between 2004 and 2009. Overall, the market value of properties in the township rose by 11.6% during the same period, according to a study by the UW-Extension office in Waushara County.
In dry years, water use can skyrocket because farmers have contracts to supply vegetables regardless of the rainfall. In 2012, the last big drought year, agricultural irrigation statewide increased 83% to 135.2 billion gallons, DNR figures show. That’s equivalent to covering Dane County in 5 inches of water, the DNR said.
In Portage County, the No. 1 groundwater user, pumping increased 65% in 2012. In Adams County, second-ranked that year, water use rose 79%. In third-ranked Waushara County, pumping rose 68%.
That year, Huron Lake dropped 3 feet during the growing season, U.S. Geological Survey data show.
"Every day I could see that I had 2 or 3 more inches of beach," said Cris Van Houten, a property owner on the lake who used a stake in the ground to chart the lake's slide.
Van Houten, who bought the property in 1983, has met with farmers who tell him groundwater issues need more study. They emphasize that the water they pump is producing food.
His response: Huron Lake is shrinking. Irrigation systems have proliferated. Some of the crops in nearby fields are processed into bags of snacks.
“We have studied this problem into the ground," he said. “What more do we need to prove? We are losing our lakes to junk food.”
Going back to the 1960s, research has shown irrigation practices in the Central Sands have affected water levels and stream flows.
In 1963, scientists led by Edwin P. Weeks of the U.S. Geological Survey pumped water from a well 300 feet away from the Little Plover River, a Class 1 trout stream, and found that groundwater levels dropped almost immediately. Ten minutes later, water levels in the stream dropped, and continued to decline over the next three days.
The 6-mile-long Little Plover has become a symbol of the toll that groundwater pumping can have on a Midwestern river. Sections dried up every year between 2005 and 2009.
Under pressure from environmental groups, the DNR in 2009 designated a minimum standard of water flow needed for the Little Plover to protect fish and other aquatic habitat. From 2005 to 2013, the stream flow dropped below the state standard 70% of the time,according to a report Kraft compiled for the DNR.
The limit has never been enforced.
Kraft’s research on the Little Plover and other areas of the Central Sands has found that water levels and stream flows dropped the most when they were closest to areas of intense irrigation. And during the 2012 drought, Kraft found the impact on streams near irrigated areas was severe. But in non-irrigated areas, “the streams chugged along healthily,” he said.
As lakes and streams have lost water over the years, conditions in the Central Sands were actually getting wetter, according to UW-Madison climate scientists.
An example: At Hancock in Waushara County, average annual precipitation increased a little more than 4 inches from the period of 1946-1970 to 1990-2015, according to weather data at the school’s Hancock Research Station. Annual precipitation was 33.4 inches in the later period.
The Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association believes the problems of the Little Plover and other water bodies are, at times, overblown.
The group also has disputed Kraft's work.
Kraft, director of the Center for Watershed Science and Education at UW-Stevens Point, has advocated for more water conservation measures, such as methods used in Minnesota.
Minnesota groundwater policy evaluates wells for their cumulative effects.
In 2010, Minnesota lawmakers passed legislation giving that state's DNR the authority toestablish groundwater protection areas that allow the agency to limit water use to meet human needs and protect lakes, streams and wetlands.
After three years of review, the first protection area was designated in November 2015 in metropolitan St. Paul — an area that runs to the Wisconsin border. Two other areas have been identified in rural areas of Minnesota.
In Wisconsin, with Kraft’s work being questioned and environmentalists pressing for action, the DNR and the growers association underwrote a two-year, $230,000 study of the Little Plover.
In April, the Wisconsin Geological & Natural History Survey and the U.S. Geological Survey found that groundwater played a key role in the health of the Little Plover; the river was vulnerable to groundwater pumping; and that stream flows would improve substantially if wells nearest the river were removed.
The study "did not refute the work of Dr. Kraft — if anything, it built on that work," said Ken Bradbury, director of the state natural history survey and co-author of the study.
But Tamas Houlihan, executive director of the potato and vegetable group, said his industry isn’t convinced, although he says growers near the Little Plover have voluntarily changed their farming and irrigation practices to conserve water.
“The jury is still out on that study,” he said. “I think it’s a healthy river — it has trout in it.”
The industry emphasizes its conservation practices, such as the use of water-efficient sprinklers and software developed at UW-Madison that advises growers on the optimum use that avoids waste.
They say their groundwater is pumped from deep aquifers — far from the groundwater that replenishes surface waters. And when it’s pumped, much of the water is returned to the ground.
When lakes or streams recede, growers attribute the situation to many factors: Drought, drainage ditches that carry away water, roads and parking lots that keep precipitation from trickling back into the ground. Even trees that consume more water than crops.
“These big pine plantations that were planted years ago — they’re mature now and they take a lot of water,” said Steve Diercks, president of Coloma Farms Inc. in Waushara County.
“I would love for someone to tell me exactly what to do to solve the problem,” Diercks said. “I can sympathize with people who have built homes on lakes. But by the same token, people out here are trying to make a living.”
Diercks and his family farm 2,700 acres — all of it irrigated. His potatoes are sold fresh or processed into french fries or snacks such as potato chips at a plant in Beloit.
“I think that everything affects surface water and we are one of them,” Diercks said. “Everything that happens on the landscape — plus high-capacity wells — has an influence on surface waters.”
There are no easy answers, he said.
“I would love for someone to tell me exactly what to do to solve the problem,” Diercks said.