DNR employees expressed concerns over wells
Employees of the Department of Natural Resources expressed concerns in emails in 2015 and 2016 about potential harm to lakes and streams from the construction of new wells in areas where irrigation was already widespread, court records filed on Friday show.
The emails were included in the latest documents of a 2016 lawsuit by an environmental group and lake association that challenged a major shift in state policy that weakened the regulation of high-capacity wells.
The October 2016 suit contends the DNR violated the Wisconsin Constitution and ignored other state laws and court cases after the agency announced it would no longer examine applications of large-scale wells by taking into account the impact of other nearby wells.
This so-called “cumulative effect” is especially significant in regions like central Wisconsin, where groundwater is used to irrigate crops and provide water for streams, rivers, lakes and wetlands.
In recent decades, well construction has grown sharply, especially in the Central Sands, sparking battles over irrigation and its impact on natural resources.
Clean Wisconsin of Madison and the Pleasant Lake Management District of Coloma in Waushara County filed the documents in Dane County. The lake group has been vocal about water use by vegetable and livestock operations and their impact on Pleasant Lake and nearby streams.
Emails included in court documents show that DNR scientists said that approving new well applications in some cases would lower water levels and harm fish habitat.
In a May 2015 email evaluating three high-capacity wells, Jeff Helmuth, a hydrogeologist, said that computer modeling of existing wells showed more than a 30% depletion on Stoltenberg Creek in Portage County “without any pumping at all by the proposed wells …”
In //a January 2015 email, the DNR’s Scott Provost told applicants in Portage County that their well was too close to the headwaters of a ditch and a reproduction area for trout. Already, he said, a cranberry farm’s water use was having a harmful effect on the water resource.
“The stream is too impacted already for another well,” said Provost, a water resources management specialist with the agency.
But a shift in policy on June 10, 2016, changed such reviews by the DNR staff so that the impact of multiple wells on a nearby lake or stream would no longer be considered, the DNR said.
The decision was praised by agribusiness groups and criticized by environmental groups, especially in central Wisconsin where lake and stream levels have suffered from over-use of groundwater.
The change came after top officials of the agency asked for a legal opinion by Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel, who concluded the DNR lacked explicit authority to place conditions on farms and others who wanted to construct large wells — even if the wells harmed state waters.
Schimel based his decision on a law passed by the Legislature in 2011, known as Act 21, that bars state agencies from imposing requirements unless those requirements are spelled out in state law.
Attorney Carl Sinderbrand said in his brief on behalf of the lake and environmental group that the “DNR, enabled by the attorney general has turned a blind eye to adverse impacts to public waters when it acts on high-capacity well applications.”
He said Schimel ignored past court cases, other state laws and the Public Trust Doctrine of the Wisconsin Constitution, which all give the DNR authority to protect water resources.
Spokesmen for the DNR and Schimel declined to comment, saying the agencies had not yet reviewed the court filings.