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Walker signs bill easing regulations on high cap wells

Jason Stein
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
High-capacity wells have been around Wisconsin since the 1940s but they mushroomed in the 1990s as demands from large-scale irrigation farms grew.

MADISON - Gov. Scott Walker privately signed controversial legislation Thursday to let farms and businesses keep their large-scale wells without added oversight from Wisconsin regulators.

The GOP governor's approval of the high-volume well measure marks a win for those seeking to maintain and expand irrigation for agriculture, especially vegetable and dairy farms in central Wisconsin.

“It is important for farmers with high capacity wells to have financial and regulatory certainty,” said WFBF President Jim Holte in a press release. “Wisconsin Farm Bureau would like to thank Governor Walker for signing this bill into law and providing that assurance.”

A center pivot irrigation system waters crops near Waupaca in the Central Sands region of the state. Gov. Scott Walker has said that ensuring farmers are able to grow high-quality produce is a priority. However, opponents say the wells deplete lakes and streams.

The practice has become more controversial as lakes and streams in that region have lost substantial volumes over the last decade.

The proposal's prominent sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau), has called the legislation a "pro-farm" measure, noting that Wisconsin produces some of the largest amounts of vegetables in the nation. 

"This is a good bill. It's solid. It doesn't go too far," Fitzgerald said last month. "You could have a bill that goes way farther than this. I've seen those. This bill is not that."

Senate Bill 76 bars state Department of Natural Resources officials from reviewing the impact of wells drawing more than 100,000 gallons daily when the wells are rebuilt or sold as part of a land deal. It essentially means that environmental officials would not be able to step in and shut down an existing well.

The measure drew criticism from Democrats such as Sen. Mark Miller of Monona, who say the vegetable farms and dairies in central Wisconsin are already doing well under current rules. They cautioned that letting some businesses draw more water than they should could lead to uncertainty for farmers, not stability. 

A center pivot irrigation system stands in a field west of Wautoma. Potato farmers in the central sands region of the state rely on high-capacity wells for large-scale irrigation.

“Senate Bill 76 gives high-capacity well owners a permit forever," Miller said in a statement. "It’s no surprise that (Walker) plans to sign the bill behind closed doors. Why would he let the public in to see their water given away to special interests?”

Walker released a brief statement Thursday saying he had signed the measure, but he offered no comment on it. Spokesman Tom Evenson had no comment on why the governor had approved the legislation or chosen to do so in a private ceremony.

Republican lawmakers passed the legislation on a strict party line vote of 19-13 in the Senate in May and nearly party line vote of 62-35 in the Assembly. 

An unused paddle boat is high and dry on what used to be covered with water on Long Lake.

The proposal is opposed by environmentalists and waterfront homeowners, who say the legislation is the latest example of weakening oversight of public waters and the property rights of area residents who live by lakes and streams. Supporters among agriculture and business groups 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.

The legislation also requires the DNR to conduct a water 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.