- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 13, 2015

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Stakeholders on all sides gave a new Republican bill that would overhaul Wisconsin’s high-capacity well a lukewarm reception during a legislative hearing Tuesday, with conservationists arguing the measure is too weak and farmers maintaining that it makes the permitting process more uncertain.

Republicans have been working to rewrite well regulations since a 2011 state Supreme Court decision said the DNR has broad authority to determine whether a high-capacity well could harm state waters and an administrative law judge ruling last year that the agency must consider the cumulative effects of such wells on groundwater.

Sen. Rob Cowles, R-Green Bay, and Rep. Scott Krug, R-Nekoosa, introduced a proposal Thursday that would allow the DNR to impose permit conditions only to ensure a well wouldn’t have a significant adverse effect on navigable waters.

If the DNR suspects an area’s wells are pulling out so much groundwater they’re depleting streams and lakes, the agency could ask the Legislature to designate the vicinity as a sensitive resource area. If lawmakers agree to the designation, the DNR could impose special measures in the area such as withdrawal limits or other conservation measures to prevent or remedy the problem.

But obtaining the designation would require extensive scientific study, a public hearing and judicial reviews.

Environmentalists told the Senate’s natural resources committee Tuesday that they’re pleased to see lawmakers tackling well regulations. But they complained obtaining an SRA designation could take years and the central sands region needs help now. The 1.75 million-acre area in the middle of Wisconsin has soil that drains quickly, leaving streams and lakes susceptible to groundwater withdrawals. Concerns that high-capacity wells are sucking the region’s lakes and streams dry have grown with the advent of factory farms.

“The central sands would not have any ability to address the problems they currently have,” said Jennifer Giegerich, legislative director for the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters. “Our concern is having the Legislature weigh in on a management plan, which opens itself up to a lot of problems.”

But farmers told the committee to slow down, saying they need water to irrigate their crops and that the bill’s terminology is too vague.

“We didn’t get in this problem overnight,” John Pavelski, an organic farmer from Amherst, said. “To create legislation that would change things overnight is a real economic disadvantage to some farmers.”

Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s largest business group, opposes the measure, too. Environmental policy director Lucas Vebber told the committee that the bill gives the DNR too much subjective authority to create SRAs and determine minimum levels for streams and lakes, continuing the uncertainty for businesses. He also complained the bill doesn’t define terms such as “significant adverse environmental impact.”

Cowles, the chair of the Senate’s natural resources committee, began the hearing by saying he thought the bill balances regulatory certainty and protecting water resources. Later, though, he called the bill “a framework to start moving forward.”

Cowles said after the hearing that he and his staff will review the bill for possible changes. People clearly feel the sensitive resource area designation process should be more streamlined, he said, but he wasn’t sure what revisions he might make.

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