Growers accused of using bad science in water fight

Lee Bergquist
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Long Lake in Waushara County has lost much of its water in the last decade, largely due to large-scale irrigation in the region, experts say.

With legislators poised to once again take up groundwater protection measures this year, a farm group at the heart of the debate has mounted a campaign to blunt criticism that growers are to blame for dwindling lakes and streams in the Central Sands region of Wisconsin.

The "main goal," Tamas Houlihan, the executive director of the Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association, said in an email to members is to "head off local activist pressure on county and town boards to prevent them from passing irrational resolutions or writing letters to the legislature which could have a negative impact on our legislation efforts."

The group is distributing what it calls a "high-capacity wells fact book" to local and state officials to spread its two-fold message:

First, the business of potatoes and vegetables is a multibillion dollar enterprise that needs irrigation to survive in the sandy soil of the region.

Second, there are other plausible reasons for why water bodies shrink when center-pivot sprinklers kick into high gear during the summer.

Farmers started meeting with county officials in December as a prelude to the legislative session where they are pinning their hopes on a growing Republican majority to keep new regulations to a minimum.

But opponents are throwing cold water on the science and turned out in hefty numbers as they confronted growers at meetings in Portage and Waupaca counties.

That prompted the industry to scuttle upcoming sessions in counties where irrigation is growing.

"We felt we were so outnumbered at these meetings that we felt our message was getting drowned out," Houlihan said in an interview.

As irrigation has grown, some water bodies in the region have been stressed. The Little Plover River in Portage County has had sections run dry in some summers.

In past legislative sessions, bills that alternatively sought to ease restrictions on growers or clamp controls on irrigation have gone nowhere.

An unused pedal boat is high and dry on what should be water on Long Lake in Waushara County in August 2016. What was once known as a bass fishing lake has become a marsh since lake levels have plummeted. Scientists are concerned that high-capacity wells for irrigation in the Central Sands region of Wisconsin are affecting levels of lakes and streams.

Complicating the picture this year:

  • In June, the state Department of Natural Resources — acting on a legal opinion from Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel — announced that it would no longer take into account the accumulating impact of many wells in a region when a new application comes through the door.
  • The change was a major victory for agriculture because the DNR stopped denying permits when too many straws were drawing groundwater.
  • Environmentalists and residents in areas with depleted waters said the policy shift will exacerbate water problems.
  • They've filed a lawsuit challenging the DNR's new approach.

Where the Legislature is headed is "too much crystal ball right now," said Sen. Rob Cowles (R-Allouez), chairman of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy.

His bill to create special zones that would have limited groundwater pumping did not gain support in 2015.

That concept is still alive, said Rep. Scott Krug (R-Nekoosa), who lives in the Central Sands.

But Krug predicted initial changes would be more modest, such as allowing growers to transfer well permits.

He also predicted the approval of a regional groundwater study.

Only then would Republicans take up the issue of setting limits in certain sensitive zones.

Environmentalists will want to go further than that, but "taking bites out of the apple, rather than trying to swallow the whole thing makes a lot more sense," Krug said.

Water issues have loomed large in Madison on topics ranging from high-capacity wells to the impact of big farms.

On Wednesday, residents will go to the Capitol to advocate for stronger water protections of all types, including groundwater.

An anonymous donor has paid for the cost of five buses from Ashland, Green Bay, Stevens Point, Eau Claire and La Crosse.

"What it all boils down to is clean and abundant water for everyone," said Criste Greening, an organizer from Wood County.

In their Central Sands campaign, growers are claiming center-pivot pumps that pull water from deep aquifers have a limited impact on surface water.

Streams and lakes, they say, are fed by shallower seams of groundwater.

The group is also contending that the thirst of a growing tree population in central Wisconsin has been overlooked as a source in depleting groundwater.

But the industry's claims have been disputed.

After grower Louis Wysocki of Wysocki Farms Inc. told members of the Portage County Board on Dec. 20 that irrigation has only a limited impact on water supplies, he faced criticism from more than a dozen speakers challenging the industry's science.

Ray P. Reser, director of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point Museum of Natural History, said the growers' claims are the "cornerstones of a campaign to convince the public that up is down, black is white and pumping 60 billion gallons of groundwater for irrigation magically puts more water in the streams."

Separately, George Kraft, director of the school's Center for Watershed Science and Education, has written his own critique.

Kraft, a proponent of water conservation controls in stressed areas, said the notion of shallow and deep aquifers that are distinct from each other in the Central Sands "does not comport with facts and the scientific work that has been done over the past 60 years," according to documents he has circulated.

"It's all connected," Kraft said in an interview.

Ken Bradbury agreed.

"The scientific facts are very well established and the fact is when you pump water, there is always an impact ... and streams, particularly in this area of the state, are well connected to groundwater," said Bradbury, director of the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey.

Houlihan said:

"We are not saying that we have no impact. We absolutely realize there is an impact. But we feel it is temporary. There is a temporary draw-down by using high-capacity wells."

Said Bradbury:

"The fish don't care about that. They're still dead if a stream goes dry for a few days in the middle of the summer."

Kraft also challenged the work that Paul Fowler, executive director of the Wisconsin Institute for Sustainable Technology at UW-Stevens Point, did on behalf of the growers.

Fowler said he wondered whether trees were being overlooked as a cause of groundwater depletion.

Tree acreage in the region grew by 15% between 1996 and 2014. Softwood varieties, which have greater rates of water loss, grew by 55%, according to Fowler.

He analyzed studies in different parts of the world, including northern Wisconsin, and concluded that agriculture's water use "may not be either the sole or major source of groundwater depletion and reduced stream flow."

But Kraft took issue with Fowler on several fronts.

He noted that Fowler has a doctorate in organic chemistry and is not an expert in groundwater science.

He questioned using other regions of the world to draw comparisons with the sandy soil and groundwater characteristics of central Wisconsin.

The best comparison, he said, is near the Little Plover River where forest cover has changed little, irrigation has increased and research has shown that the river has experienced low water levels because of it.

Also, Kraft noted that Fowler has done work for the potato growers, including a nearly $500,000 federal grant that UW-Stevens Point received to help the vegetable industry study commercial uses of crop residues.

In an interview, Fowler said he offered to write a section of the growers' fact book on trees when he learned that forest cover has been growing.

"It sort of sparked my curiosity," Fowler said.

He said he is not purporting to be an expert on groundwater but can analyze scientific papers.

Fowler said his work took place about a year before the school got the federal grant, as well as a second grant for $11,848 he received from the growers.