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Editor’s note: This is part two of a three-part series examining industry’s effects on Wisconsin’s water resources. Part one looks at the politicization of the Department of Natural Resources. Part three explores agriculture's effect on Kewaunee County's drinking water.
WAUSHARA COUNTY, Wis. — For the Trudell family, Lake Huron in north-central Wisconsin is a little slice of paradise.
But the Trudells can hardly recognize the lake they have spent summers on since 1988. It has lost about 11 feet of water since 2000, said Dan Trudell, and water levels are continuing to drop. It’s a fate Huron shares with other lakes and streams in Wisconsin’s Central Sands region — a six-county area north of Madison. Some residents and researchers are pointing to the proliferation of high capacity wells — largely used to irrigate crops in the area — as the cause.
Among the waterways that are threatened is the Little Plover River, a renowned trout stream that was listed as one of America’s most endangered rivers in 2013. The nonprofit organization American Rivers, which identifies the most endangered rivers in the United States each year, cited groundwater extraction as a contributing factor in the Little Plover’s decline.
In Wisconsin a well is considered high capacity if it can pump at least 70 gallons of water per minute — about 100,000 gallons a day. In 1950 there were fewer than 100 high capacity wells in the Central Sands. Today there are more than 3,000, or nearly half of all those in the state. Within 5 miles of Lake Huron alone, there are 200, according to Trudell. There are 940 high capacity wells in Waushara County, which encompasses Lake Huron, according to the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
“When you pump groundwater, it means you’re lowering water levels in the aquifer,” said George Kraft, a professor of water resources at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, adding that research has shown the water table in the Central Sands has dropped about 5 feet in recent years. “And since lakes depend on the upper part of the groundwater, 5 feet out of the aquifer is a lot for them.”
“Without all the [high capacity] wells, there would be fluctuations in [Lake Huron],” Trudell said. “But we haven’t had any ups. It’s been down, down, down, down, down.”
James Dick, a DNR spokesman, said “whether the issue is high capacity wells, CAFOs, quality of our waterways or more, the Wisconsin DNR is doing what is within the confines of current state and federal law to address the issues. We are enforcing the Clean Water Act and work with the [Environmental Protection Agency] in doing so.”
The majority of the high capacity wells in the Central Sands are used for irrigation and farming. Corn and potato growers use the wells to pump water onto their fields.
“We think there are impacts, certainly, from high capacity well pumping,” said Tamas Houlihan, the executive director of the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association. “But we do not think they are causing adverse environmental impacts.”
A permit from the DNR is required to install a high capacity well, and critics point to the agency’s application process until last year as the problem.
In the past, the department considered each high capacity well permit application individually, without taking into account the cumulative effects of all wells in the area.
According to DNR data, in 2010 the department approved 435 wells. That number rose to 690 in 2014. So far this year, it has approved 244 wells — a 65 percent drop from the previous year, likely related to that ruling.
“The DNR, in its infinite wisdom, has said they could only look at one well at a time,” said Bob Clarke of the Friends of the Central Sands, a nonprofit environmental group. “It defies common sense, frankly.”
His organization was among those that challenged a 2011 high capacity well permit application filed by a proposed dairy farm that initially planned to install two such wells and pump upward of 100 million gallons of water annually.
“You’ve got to haul them to court and sue them to get them to do their job,” Kraft said of the DNR, for which he worked in the 1980s. “They’ve developed this shell where they won’t talk to you, they won’t engage with you.”
In another part of the state, some believe mining is threatening waterways. The number of frac sand mines and processing plants — which extract and process sand to be used in fracking fields in other parts of the country — has grown from about five to more than 120 since 2010, mostly in the western part of Wisconsin.
Many of the areas that are mined are hills and ridges, which are deforested and dug up. The seeps on the hills and ridges, though not necessarily sources of water, collect and flow into trout streams and wetlands.
“If you start taking away a significant amount of these ridges, you don’t have these feeders anymore,” said Lee Stahl, an area resident and a retired forest engineer. Stahl and others are worried that excess mining will permanently change the amount of water in area streams or the direction of their flows.
In the Central Sands, representatives of the agriculture industry maintain that the high capacity wells are neither the sole nor a major contributor to the dropping lake levels, and Houlihan said growers have not found satisfactory evidence to prove otherwise. If that information existed, he said, the industry would take measures to reduce its impact.
Without irrigation, crop yields would be down significantly.
“Something is causing those lakes and streams to go down, and it has everything to do with rainfall and precipitation,” he said. “And we feel there is an abundant recharge provided every year through rain and snowfall in Wisconsin.”
Residents like Trudell don’t buy it. In 2008 the small well he used to pump drinking water went dry, and he blames the high capacity wells. He and Lake Huron’s other residents have had to install new, deeper wells to keep water flowing from their taps.
“The waters belong to everybody,” he said. “[Agriculture] does not have some superseded right to pump all the water they want, to the detriment of others.”