Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Lawmakers Battle Over High Capacity Wells

Are they drawing down streams and lakes? Republican and Democratic lawmakers disagree.

By - Jul 18th, 2016 10:34 am
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos

This year’s bitter Capitol fight over how to regulate high-capacity wells was just practice for the all-out war looming next session. And eight counties in the middle of the state – the Central Sands region, represented by legislators from both parties – are ground zero in that fight.

The Central Sands region – 1.7 million acres of largely sandy soil – includes all or part of Adams, Marathon, Marquette, Shawano, Portage, Waupaca, Waushara and Wood counties.

Writing for Wisconsin Counties magazine, Jim VandenBrook, executive director of the nonprofit Wisconsin Land+Water, said there were fewer than 100 high-capacity wells in the Central Sands region in the 1960s.

In the same edition of the magazine, lawyers Christopher Koehnke and Andrew Phillips, updated that number: “Currently, the Central Sands region has more than 3,000 high-capacity wells and, according to DNR, these wells pumped more than 98 billion gallons of water in 2012.”

Why is this important?  “Any withdrawal of groundwater lowers the groundwater level, or water table, and in some cases streams, lakes and wells can go dry,” VandenBrook wrote.

High-capacity wells that irrigate the land are the only reason Wisconsin ranks third in U.S. potato production nationally and why golf courses there stay green. Vegetable and dairy farmers, and cranberry growers, also depend on those wells to stay in business and hire workers.

But the soaring number of those wells, and how much groundwater they use, worry many landowners, environmentalists and hydrologists.

The stakes in the emotional issue have gone up since May, when Attorney General Brad Schimel issued an opinion that concluded that the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has limited authority to review applications for new high-capacity wells.

Responding, DNR officials announced new, scaled-back criteria for reviewing applications for new high-capacity wells, which are defined as pumping more than 100,000 gallons of water per day or a combination of wells that can pump that much.

In that statement, DNR officials said they stopped considering the “cumulative impact” of new high-capacity wells on groundwater and will no longer “impose monitoring requirements” on new wells.

Schimel’s opinion does not have the force of law. But DNR officials said the attorney general “is the chief legal advisor for state and government” and, “Historically, the DNR has followed all formal legal opinions issued by the attorney general.”

Republican Rep. Scott Krug, of Wisconsin Rapids, worked for months on the high-capacity well issue last session, trying to find a compromise. Krug’s efforts were opposed by a neighboring lawmaker, Assistant Democratic Leader Katrina Shankland, of Stevens Point.

No fewer than 21 special-interest groups – including Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce; vegetable, potato, soybean and cranberry growers, dairy farmers, Clean Wisconsin, Wisconsin Rural Water and the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation – registered to lobby on one of Krug’s bills. Nothing passed both houses of the Legislature, however.

The Assembly’s two top party leaders told WisconsinEye last week that the need for the next legislative session to act on high-capacity wells is greater than ever. They disagree on what should be done.

Agriculture is “one of our three largest industries,” noted Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.

Vos said Republicans made a “historic” push last session to protect public access to clean water, while also allowing those now operating high-capacity wells to replace them without getting “Mother may I?” approval from DNR’s “unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats.”

Also, Vos said, Republicans want a “regulated meter” on each well, so how much water it uses can be accurately measured. “Now, it’s an estimate.”

But Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca accused Republicans like Vos, who requested Schimel’s opinion, of overturning an important 2011 state Supreme Court ruling. That decision said DNR had the authority to consider the “cumulative impact” of all proposed new wells on groundwater, according to lawyers Koehnke and Phillips.

As a result, Barca said, “It’s going to make it much more difficult for the average person in Wisconsin to have water capacity for their own wells.”

Democratic Sen. Chris Larson went further last week, saying crippling of DNR’s regulatory authority “will allow corporations to profit by devastating and drying up our public streams, lakes, and groundwater.”

Vos disagreed: “Water levels are historically high right now. Lake Michigan is at a 90-year high. We’re not at some point where are running short of water in Wisconsin.”

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at

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5 thoughts on “The State of Politics: Lawmakers Battle Over High Capacity Wells”

  1. daniel golden says:

    As I anticipated, Brad Schimel has been the unethical corporate whore I expected as Attorney General. The rule of law is clear: the AG opines, but the courts decide. Even the present GOP controlled Wisconsin Supreme Court decided in 2011 that the DNR had to follow the Wisconsin Constitution and regulate Wisconsin’s waters for all the citizens of the state. Brad Schimil, faithful GOP lap dog that he is, ignored this decision and issued an opinion to the contrary. Any sentient attorney knows that the DNR must follow the decisions of the Wisconsin Supreme Court when they conflict with an AG’s opinion. We now see the danger of putting incompetent, high school graduates in positions of power. Cathy Stepp, the realtor now posing as head of the DNR, has instructed her agency to ignore the Supreme Court decision in favor of one from Schimel that could have as easily been written by a lawyer for Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. One third of the wells in Kewanee County have polluted ground water because of corporate agriculture. Yet Schimil OK’s more of the same. The worst of us are governing the rest of us.

  2. swamper says:

    Vos disagreed: “Water levels are historically high right now. Lake Michigan is at a 90-year high. We’re not at some point where are running short of water in Wisconsin.”

    The statement by Vos is simply not true. Lake Michigan is about a foot below the all time high recorded in the mid-80’s.

    And water in Lake Michigan doesn’t find its way to the Central Sands.

    What a liar.

  3. swamper says:


    Here is the actual data from the ACOE:

    Current Lake Michigan: 580.17′ IGLD

    All time High: 582.35′ IGLD (Oct 1986)

    All time low: 576.02′ IGLD (Jan. 2013).

    Somebody should call out Vos on this intentional lie.

  4. Vincent Hanna says:

    Pretty sure Vos doesn’t care if he’s wrong.

  5. Monica Trudell says:

    I would invite Assembly Speaker Vos to Huron Lake in Waushara County to see the LOW water levels on this beautiful lake which is surrounded by high capacity wells. My husband and I have personally had to put in a new well due to the decline in water levels. Historic high levels? Not in the majority of the state! Come see for yourself, Mr. Vos!

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