Groundwater war pits Wisconsin farms against fish


Kate Golden/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

The boat launch at Long Lake, near Plainfield, no longer reaches the water. In Wisconsin's Central Sands, some lakes and streams have lowered or dried up in recent years as the number of high-capacity wells has mushroomed, largely for irrigation.


Wisconsin’s groundwater

Check out the project page for more coverage of the concerns about high-capacity wells’ impact in the Central Sands, including more photos, maps, and audio-slideshows.

Water Watch Wisconsin

This story is part of a major new project, Water Watch Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television are examining the quality and supply of Wisconsin’s water. Story ideas? Email

PLAINFIELD — Long Lake has lost its shoreline. Dock after dock dead-ends in the weeds. This small lake in the Central Sands of Wisconsin looks more like an unmowed lawn with a pond in the middle than a place where families used to water ski and fish. The lake used to be up to 12 feet deep. Now it is closer to 3 feet.

“Long Lake was once a trophy bass lake. So when we moved here, in the first two years, my boys were catching bass like crazy,” said Brian Wolf, who owns a cabin on Long Lake. “It was like catching fish in a barrel as the water declined.”

In 2006, the lake dried up completely and all the fish, including 3-foot-long northern pikes, died in the mud. Homeowners like Wolf lost their lake and more than half their property values.

Across central Wisconsin, in a region known as the Central Sands, residents have watched water levels in lakes and small streams drop for years.

Twenty miles north of Long Lake, a six-mile-long coldwater trout stream, the Little Plover River, just landed on a list of America’s 10 most endangered rivers because of its declining flow.

In a state with about 15,000 lakes and more than a quadrillion gallons of groundwater, it is hard to believe that water could ever be in short supply. Experts say, however, that the burgeoning number of so-called high-capacity wells is drawing down some ground and surface water, including the Little Plover River and Long Lake.

In the early 1950s, there were fewer than 100 high-capacity wells in the Central Sands, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. Today there are more than 3,000 — 40 percent of the state’s total — in the six-county area.

Officials at DNR say that legally, they cannot block new wells based on the impacts from existing wells. And lawmakers want to keep it that way.

In June, as part of the new two-year budget, the Legislature took away citizens’ ability to challenge well permits issued by the DNR even when evidence suggests the new well would contribute, along with other neighboring wells, to drawing down nearby surface waters.

The law, which will go into effect on July 1, 2014, was sponsored by state Rep. Daniel LeMahieu, R-Cascade. He passed along requests for comment to the office of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester.

“The motion keeps the environmental impacts the same but protects the DNR by taking the judicial branch out of the permitting process,” Kit Beyer, communications director for the speaker’s office, said in an email.

Water advocates saw the budget amendment as a sign the Legislature does not want to acknowledge a serious problem.

“Any fifth-grader can tell you that if you put too many straws in the water it’ll be gone,” said Bob Clarke, a board member of the nonprofit stewardship group, Friends of the Central Sands. “For our legislators to ignore that is just wrong.”

Experts say the implications of overpumping are on display across the state.

In the Madison area, the deep aquifer is down almost 60 feet. Waukesha’s withdrawals have pushed the deep aquifer down 600 feet. Green Bay had to tap Lake Michigan after depleting its groundwater in the 1950s.

High-capacity well expansion in Central Wisconsin

In the Central Sands, scientists say that a rapid expansion of irrigated agriculture may be largely to blame — setting the stage for a water fight between farmers and those who fear for the region’s lakes, rivers and wetlands.

“We were all raised with the sense that this is Lake Superior underneath us, and it’s not,” said Justin Isherwood, a farmer with about a dozen high capacity wells for irrigating his 1,400 acres of potatoes and other vegetables in Portage County.

Tensions have sprung up over how to allocate a finite water resource to many legitimate uses: municipal water supplies, industries, irrigation, private wells, lakes and streams.

To some, it comes down to this: Who needs the water more — the potato plants or the trout?
For those, like Isherwood, who love both, finding a solution involves hard questions.

“What do we as a group of farmers think we owe nature?” asked Isherwood, who grew up farming in the region before irrigation was common.

Surface, groundwater tightly linked

In the Central Sands, there is no rock layer above the groundwater, and water is so close to the surface that the lakes are basically holes where groundwater emerges. Draw down the aquifer through pumping — for agricultural, industrial or municipal use — and there’s less to feed the surface waters.

“Every gallon of water that gets pulled out of the ground is a gallon that’s not going to the stream or lake it’s supposed to,” said George Kraft, a hydrogeologist with University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and UW-Extension.

The state DNR evaluates and can put restrictions on well permits based on potential adverse environmental impacts. But its lawyers say the agency cannot take into account the cumulative effect of other owners’ wells.

To farmers who rely on irrigation to grow their crops in the Central Sands, Wisconsin’s current policy is fair. Why should one farmer’s well permit be denied because of his neighbors’ wells?

Duane Maatz, head of the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association, an Antigo-based group representing the interests of 140 growers, believes there is no water shortage.

“Our groundwater is not decreasing,” said Maatz, citing data the growers’ association collects from wells on farms showing water levels higher than last spring before the drought. “If the flows are different, there has to be another reason.”

But in many arid Western states, water withdrawals have long been tightly regulated. And some of Wisconsin’s neighboring states have begun to address groundwater depletion. Minnesota, for example, is developing groundwater management areas to address cumulative effects of pumping in heavily irrigated regions.

Dairy proposal draws lawsuit

Several groups and individuals, including the Friends of the Central Sands, have sued DNR, alleging it failed to protect Pleasant Lake and other nearby lakes and streams when it issued two well permits to Richfield Dairy, a proposed 4,550-head operation in Adams County. Richfield, a proposed confined animal feeding operation, or CAFO, is permitted to use up to 72 million gallons of water a year.

State Sen. Mark Miller, D-Monona, said he believes LeMahieu’s amendment was aimed at protecting Richfield Dairy from legal challenges. Late in the budget process, however, the language was changed so that the new law will go into effect in July 2014 and have no impact on the Richfield Dairy case.

“What the Legislature is saying is that we don’t care how high-cap wells are affecting our surface waters,” said Carl Sinderbrand, the attorney for the lead plaintiff, Pleasant Lake Management District, a governmental entity that maintains the lake. “It impairs our ability to protect the state’s waters for the public. I would call it a weakening of the constitutional protections for the state’s waters.”

Lakefront houses’ private docks at Long Lake, near Plainfield, no longer reach the water. In Wisconsin’s Central Sands, some lakes and streams have lowered or dried up in recent years as the number of high-capacity wells has mushroomed, largely for irrigation. Kate Golden/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Through a provision known as the Public Trust Doctrine, the Wisconsin Constitution gives the state the responsibility to protect all of the state’s waters as a public good.

Two years ago, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the DNR had the authority and duty to consider evidence that a high-capacity well might harm any of the state’s waters. This broadened the protections to all waters, not just the exceptional resources like trout streams, that were protected by the state groundwater law enacted in 2004, said Eric Ebersberger, the DNR water use section chief.

But in that case, the court did not directly address the issue of cumulative impacts, Ebersberger said, so the DNR evaluates each proposed well individually unless they are all located on the same property. He added that it is unusual that the impact from a single well would be considered significant enough to deny a permit.

“Let’s say your well will draw down two inches; each of your five neighbors’ will too. I don’t have the authority to deny your well because your neighbors’ wells are already having an adverse impact,” Ebersberger said. “Admittedly, we can see how that’s an unsatisfactory approach if you are a member of a lake association.”

In the Richfield Dairy case, Kraft, the hydrogeologist, said his models show that the CAFO’s wells could have a 1- to 2-inch impact on the lake. Consultants for the Richfield Dairy came to a similar estimate.

“They argue that with the lake already down two feet, what’s another inch?” Kraft said. “It’s the next inch and the next inch and the next inch and pretty soon you’ll have a dry lake. It’s futile to manage groundwater one well at a time.”

The science behind the problem

Kraft has linked the loss of lake and stream water to groundwater withdrawal by comparing data from areas with many high-capacity wells to those without a lot of pumping.

Historically, water levels in all the lakes fluctuated similarly — a little lower during drought, higher in wet years, according to Kraft, who has studied the groundwater of central Wisconsin for nearly three decades. But as withdrawals increased, water levels in nearby lakes began a steady decline while lakes farther away did not, he said.

Many Wisconsin farmers use center-pivot irrigation systems, which can apply the exact amount of water their crops need. Most farmers are efficient, but the number of irrigation wells continues to climb as the practice spreads across the state. Kate Golden/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

“Irrigation stresses are sufficient to explain the previously rare or never before observed low-water conditions that have prevailed since 2000 in the Wisconsin Central Sands,” Kraft wrote in a scientific paper for the journal Groundwater in 2012.

Opponents dispute Kraft’s conclusions, suggesting that climate change impacts, such as less rainfall, or other factors could be causing the lakes to shrink.

“We are concerned that a rush to manage a complex issue without a fully developed, scientific approach will do more harm than good,” said Maatz from the growers’ association.

Kraft said if climate change were responsible, lakes surrounded by fewer wells would show the same patterns — but they don’t. He added that data from the DNR show that Wisconsin has generally gotten wetter in recent decades.

Ken Bradbury, a hydrogeologist at the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, said Kraft’s research is basically sound and that his model works well to draw attention to the general problems of overpumping in the region. But Bradbury believes a more sophisticated tool is needed. He is working with the DNR to build a model of the Little Plover River that will help sort out the complex factors leading to drawdowns.

Farmers in a tight spot

The central Wisconsin landscape is dominated by big, flat fields. On many, a long irrigation pivot arm runs from a central well, crawling in a big arc and spraying down onto neat rows of potatoes and corn. Wisconsin has almost 400,000 irrigated acres, about half of them here in the six counties that comprise the Central Sands — Adams, Portage, Marquette, Wood, Waushara, and Waupaca.

Growing potatoes is not easy. Farmers battle blight and beetles to preserve the crop, and without irrigation, yields in the porous Central Sands would drop sharply.

Portage County vegetable grower Justin Isherwood, standing next to his center-pivot irrigator, says farmers in his area have been reluctant to discuss water supply issues. “€œWe were all raised with the sense that this is Lake Superior underneath us, and it’s not,”€ he says. Kate Golden/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Isherwood, who writes about the importance of water to the region, said growers in his community see themselves as stewards, so it is hard for them to accept that they might be causing the water losses.

“We view ourselves as good guys, we’re raising the food, we’re getting dirty doing it, we listen to cowboy songs on the radio, how can we be to blame for anything?” Isherwood said. “It’s not easy confronting that we just might be the bull in the china shop.”

The Dairy Business Association, which promotes the interests of Wisconsin dairy farmers, and the potato and vegetable growers’ group both oppose cumulative impact based regulations.

Maatz said Wisconsin growers already take water efficiency seriously — out of economic necessity. Pivot irrigation systems use state-of-the-art technology that can apply precisely the amount of water the plants can use, he said.

“We’re using less and less water and yet we’re still blamed for the problems,” Maatz said. “Everybody wants to manage or regulate us out of business.”

Water advocates say they are not looking to stop irrigation, only to find a fairer way to share the region’s water resources.

“We are not against farms, we just want to do the math,” said Clarke, the Pleasant Lake homeowner who runs Friends of the Central Sands. “We enjoy eating. We enjoy potatoes. We enjoy milk. But there’s got to be a balance.”

Isherwood said farmers are talking about water issues, but he believes more research is needed to convince them the problems are real.

Homes without water now under water

Irrigation is a key part of the state’s $59 billion agricultural industry, but lakes pull their own economic weight. Lakes draw tourism and recreation. Property taxes on lake homes support local governments.

“I’m amazed that people aren’t more upset about this from a private property rights standpoint,” said Helen Sarakinos, a water policy expert with the advocacy group River Alliance of Wisconsin. “People are losing their lakes and this (LeMahieu’s) motion said, ‘Too bad.’ ”

Wolf, a psychologist from Kenosha, bought a cabin on three wooded acres along Long Lake in 2005, just a year before it dried up, killing all of the fish. In a 2007 letter, the local assessor told property owners around Long Lake and several other small lakes in the area that their property values had plummeted by 60 percent because of the lower water levels.

“Everybody should be able to use these lakes. I should be able to put a boat in off my dock and paddle around my lake,” Wolf said. “I should not lose my lake at the expense of these other things.”

Potential solutions

What should Wisconsin do about its water problems?

Scott Froehlke, who heads the Central Sands Water Action Coalition, believes creating a regional groundwater management district could give local stakeholders — farmers, water advocates, scientists and local officials — the ability to work with the DNR to negotiate acceptable pumping levels and procedures for how to scale back if a lake or stream is losing water.

A similar plan to coordinate groundwater management in at-risk areas was proposed in 2010 by Sen. Miller and former Democratic Rep. Spencer Black of Madison, but the bill stalled when it faced resistance from Republicans, rural Democrats and the agricultural industry.

Maatz said his group also opposes regional groundwater management districts in part because “farmers would be outnumbered.”

Scott Froehlke, who heads the Central Sands Water Action Coalition, wants to create a water management district that could help local stakeholders work with the Department of Natural Resources on groundwater issues. Kate Golden/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

But Maatz does support the development of the groundwater model for the Little Plover River. The project, run by the DNR with federal and state experts including Bradbury, would create a detailed model of the watershed, including irrigation and municipal pumping, drainage patterns, land use and rainfall and recharge changes.

“To me, the way the state should be making decisions in sensitive parts of the state is to use these models and to make an informed decision,” Bradbury said. “Looking at these wells one at a time, you’d never see the cumulative impacts.”

Ebersberger said the model could provide evidence that the DNR could use to ask well owners to scale back pumping — something the agency has never done. But he said the DNR could only do that if it could trace a significant impact back to a single well, not the cumulative effect of many wells. Such a request likely would be challenged in court, Ebersberger added.

It will be at least a year before that model, developed at a cost of $200,000, will be ready to provide any insights, Bradbury said.

While the state waits for the study, more and more wells are going in. Ebersberger said that well applications have increased dramatically, a response to last summer’s drought and the high price of corn. Well applications grew from 276 applications in 2011 to 416 in 2012, and they continue to be high this year, DNR figures show.

Kraft is frustrated with the calls to wait until more research is done before pushing for stronger policies.

“We’ll have more Little Plovers and more Long Lakes,” Kraft said. “And then we’ll have the political pressure to do something.”