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Senate pursuing looser well rules

Lee Bergquist and Jason Stein
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
An irrigation system waters crops in Coloma, in the Central Sands region, 1.75 million acres in central Wisconsin where there is a large concentration of high-capacity wells used for irrigation.

MADISON - Big farms would get to keep existing large-scale wells without added oversight from Wisconsin regulators, under legislation that moved one step forward in the state Senate Tuesday.

Democrats, however, blocked a vote on final passage of the measure, forcing Republicans to return Wednesday morning to finish the work and send it to the Assembly.

In another proposal with importance for rural Wisconsin, senators Tuesday approved $18.5 million for expanding broadband internet into those areas.

The high-volume well measure would be a win for those seeking to maintain and expand irrigation for agriculture, especially in central Wisconsin, where the practice has become more controversial as lakes and streams have lost substantial volumes over the last decade.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau), the proposal's sponsor, said state rules are threatening to "choke off" farms that produce crops such as vegetables and cranberries.

"In an effort to protect public water, they have moved away from what we should truly be concerned about," Fitzgerald said of those who favor more regulations on wells.

Senate Bill 76 would bar state Department of Natural Resources officials from reviewing the impact of wells drawing more than 100,000 gallons a day when the wells are replaced or when the property was sold.

Issued to last forever

Sen. Mark Miller (D-Monona) said the legislation would essentially lock in permits for these massive wells in perpetuity

"They are issued to last forever," Miller said. "There's no opportunity to review the permit."

The proposal is opposed by environmentalists and waterfront property owners, who say the bill is the latest example of weakening oversight of public waters and of large wells.

Supporters say the measure enforces an important property right for farmers and others who depend heavily on water to grow crops and feed and clean cattle.

Democrats said they temporarily blocked the final vote on the bill because of concerns about its substance as well as the use of a private ballot to advance the bill in committee last month.

Since 2009, the Legislature has seen a gradual uptick in the use of paper ballots to cast votes behind closed doors away from reporters and constituents.

On a party-line vote Tuesday, GOP senators amended the bill to require the DNR to conduct a hydrological study in one of the most affected regions of the state — sandy central Wisconsin — to determine whether large wells are causing harm there. If wells are to blame, the DNR would have three years to make recommendations to lawmakers.

In May 2016, Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel issued a legal opinion saying the Department of Natural Resources lacked legal authority under its water permits to determine whether a single well may pose a harmful effect when combined with other existing ones.

The DNR stopped doing that kind of analysis, and environmentalists have sued to reinstate it.