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In the News: Staff Columns

High-cap wells: Battle that chose us

Monday, June 5, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: John Holevoet, director of government affairs
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The passage of legislation to protect existing investments in high-capacity wells marks a turning point in the years-long battle over groundwater regulation in our state. The bill, signed into law on June 1, allows for the repair, replacement, reconstruction and transfer of existing wells without a renewed environmental review. This will help to provide farmers and other high-capacity well users with the predictability they need to be successful. The law also provides for important groundwater research in a sensitive part of the state.

The legislation passed in the state Senate in April. It was approved by the state Assembly on May 2. This victory was a long time coming. The state Supreme Court decision that disrupted groundwater regulation in our state occurred in 2011. Subsequent administrative decisions involving dairies only added to the confusion. There were attempts to address this in each legislative session since then.

The issue became a big deal for the dairy community, but it wasn’t obvious that it should have been. We’ve all heard the adage that you should choose your battles wisely. That’s good advice, but, as many of our farmers know, sometimes we don’t get a choice. Sometimes a battle chooses us.

High-capacity well regulation is an example of that kind of battle.

Dairy farms account for only a sliver of the overall use of ground and surface water in Wisconsin. (See the chart below.) Water diversions for power generation usually outpace all the various water uses combined. Critics would be quick to point out that this measure represents all water use, not just groundwater use. That is true, but dairy farming is responsible for just 2.3 percent of groundwater withdrawals a small amount given our dairies’ large positive impact on the economy.

So, how did this fight become ours? Even though we are not major water users, some of the key cases challenging high-capacity well permits involved the construction of new dairy farms. The regulatory uncertainty was easy for farm opponents to exploit in an effort to keep these farms from being built. Also, as the number of dairy farmers shrinks and the size of dairy farms grows, more dairy farmers will need to wade into the fight over these wells.

For our friends that grow potatoes and vegetables in the Central Sands, this fight was over their past, present and future. For dairy, it was mostly a forward-looking struggle. We needed to address this issue to ensure we can maintain our existing state herd size and to allow for future growth.

We owe a debt of gratitude to the other agricultural groups that helped us get this bill past the finish line. This battle was ultimately a tribute to the power of Wisconsin agriculture when it works toward a common goal.

We should celebrate this victory. It was six years in coming. However, we also need to be prepared for the next battle, whether it’s one we pick or one that chooses us.

Source: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

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