A commentary by David Wright-Racette, Wisconsin Farmers Union policy organizer.
In 2012, Adams County farmer Gary Barnes' well ran dry due to the pumping of nearby high capacity wells. Gary raises beef cattle and grows crops on the farm that has been in his family for over a century. The farm has a long and rich history – one that now includes enduring the challenges posed by high capacity wells.
In recent years, the number of high capacity wells in the state has skyrocketed, and private wells have begun to run dry in certain areas. The Department of Natural Resources is responsible for reviewing applications and permitting high capacity wells, and recently has been tasked with looking at the cumulative impact of high capacity well withdrawals.
This means that instead of just looking at how one well will drawdown the aquifer, they look at the combined impact of all of the nearby high capacity wells. This idea makes sense given the ever-increasing number of high capacity wells and an uptick in the number of interferences with water caused by these wells.
As applications for high capacity wells have increased, the DNR has had trouble keeping pace. As a result, some would rather see the DNR stick its head in the sand and stop looking at cumulative impacts.
A better idea is for the state legislature to provide the DNR with the resources it needs to evaluate cumulative impacts efficiently. Specifically, the DNR needs a scientifically sound framework to evaluate cumulative impacts and funding for more DNR hydrogeologists to review new and existing high capacity well permits.
When Gary's well went dry, he had two options: he could drill a new well at his own expense or he could sue his neighbors to pay for the well. Knowing a lawsuit could cost him more than the price of a new well, Gary paid $8,000 out of his own pocket to drill a deeper well.
Stories of private wells going dry have become all too common in Wisconsin's Central Sands region, composed of Adams, Juneau, Waushara, Wood, Portage, and Waupaca counties, which have seen most of this high capacity well expansion, particularly in the agricultural sector.
The number of applications for high capacity wells in the state has increased most rapidly in the agricultural sector. This is understandable. While prices for commodities such as corn and soybeans fluctuate, more than ever those prices barely surpass the cost of production for the farmer.
This means the farmer must produce more food on more acres to make a living, and sometimes that means putting in a high capacity well. Unfortunately, as the number of high capacity wells drawing water out of the ground increased, farmers like Gary saw their wells go dry.
It is possible for farmers to include the use of high capacity wells in their operations in order to make a living without depleting water resources and hurting farmers like Gary. Given the right tools, the DNR can keep up with applications, periodically review high capacity well permits, and study areas sensitive to withdrawals.
Yet, many in Wisconsin's state legislature don't see it this way. All they have seen is the DNR struggling to keep up with applications, especially in light of recent budget cuts. Their solution is to roll back regulations and kick the can down the road, by which point more wells may have dried up.
With farm commodity prices barely covering the cost of production for a farmer, $8,000 to drill a new well can be the tipping point that causes a farmer to go out of business. Gary is still farming in Adams County, but as the number of farms in Wisconsin continues to drop, we can't risk more wells drying up because of high capacity well pumping.
Most people don't want to sue their neighbor and would rather see the state step in to protect all water users rather than passing legislation to ensure a select few have perpetual groundwater permits.
This problem can be addressed through comprehensive groundwater legislation that gives the DNR the tools to do its job rather than hamstringing the agency's ability to promote agriculture and protect water at the same time.