You won't find a more unlikely place for a water war. Bounded by two Great Lakes and the Mississippi River, with a few million acres of wetlands, 84,000 miles of rivers, and 15,000 lakes in between, Wisconsin is about as water-rich as it gets. But even here, in a state with an estimated quadrillion gallons of groundwater, water rights are dividing communities and stirring unrest as business interests and private citizens vie for access to this precious resource.
Before Governor Scott Walker took power in 2011, Wisconsin was a paragon for environmental stewardship and conservation practices. In the six years since he declared the state "Open for Business", lax regulation and reckless management of natural resources have become commonplace. Policies favoring for-profit corporations over average citizens now routinely flow from the capitol building in Madison, where well-funded industry groups wield immense power and big donors enjoy easy access to elected officials. Of all the recent government-backed resource giveaways, few match the audacity of the ongoing Central Sands water grab orchestrated by the state's most powerful agribusiness interests.
"The growers and the dairy people have spent a lot of money in the state Capitol," says Skip Hansen, who coordinates the Central Sands Water Action Coalition, a broad assembly of 50,000-plus activist members fighting to raise awareness and halt the unchecked aquifer depletion in central Wisconsin. "All of those political contributions are leading to legislative victories."
This spring, at the behest of potato growers and industrial dairy operators, the Republican-controlled state legislature is advancing legislation designed to forbid the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) from regulating high capacity wells, which can pump up to 100,000 gallons of water per day. The new pro-pumping legislation comes just a year after a controversial and dubious legal opinion—issued in May 2016 by Wisconsin's Republican Attorney General, Brad Schimel—that bars state regulators from considering the cumulative effects high capacity wells have nearby surface waters. As a result, the state has approved more than a billion gallons per month in new groundwater withdrawals over the last six months. Before that, during the summer of 2016, the defanged DNR approved nearly 200 new high capacity wells.
By far, the greatest concentration of high capacity wells—and the area of the state where the effects of increased pumping for irrigation are most obvious—is the so-called Central Sands. Covering 1.75 million acres spread across eight counties, the Central Sands has more than 80 lakes and approximately 600 miles of headwater streams. It's also home to dozens of mega-farms and over 3,200 high-capacity wells. Big Ag is a billion-dollar industry in these parts, and pro-pumping forces argue the wells are necessary, and the environmental impacts are negligible.
That's only half true, according to Amber Meyer Smith of Clean Wisconsin, an environmental action group that is busy exposing groundwater giveaways and challenging pumping permit approvals in the courts. Smith says growers absolutely need groundwater. They are, after all, growing water-intensive crops like potatoes and corn. But the effects on local surface waters are undeniable.
"We have a serious problem in central Wisconsin," Smith says. "We see rivers, lakes, streams and wetlands drying up, and shorelines receding. What were once waterfront properties, are now mud-front properties."
The Little Plover River is the most famous example. Once a prized trout stream, the Little Plover runs dry during the summer growing season, when pumping is most intense. Long Lake used to be twelve feet deep and previously hosted an impressive recreational fishery. Ten years ago, Long Lake dried up completely, killing all the fish. Nowadays, piers end dozens of feet short of the receded shoreline of the lake. It's the same story on Pine Lake, Huron Lake, and numerous other water bodies in the region. According to Skip Hansen, over-pumping in the Central Sands hurts vacation home values and scares off tourists. "No one comes up here to watch the corn grow," he says.
George Kraft, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and the director of the Center for Watershed Science and Education, started examining the Central Sands groundwater question around 2003. Initially, he was skeptical that irrigation wells could be responsible for adverse impacts in such a water-rich locale. After more than a decade studying the issue himself, and considering the data on the subject goes back to the 1950s, Kraft believes the science is settled and action is required.
"We really don't need anymore science to tell us if high capacity wells are affecting lakes and streams," Kraft says. "In 1959, the legislature first talked about doing meaningful groundwater management, and we started kicking the can down the road."
In February, hoping to move the state legislature into addressing their concerns, hundreds of activists descended upon the state Capitol for the "Citizens Water Lobby Day". Skip Hansen says that volunteer groups like the Central Sands Water Action Coalition can't compete with the farm groups when it comes to financing political campaigns and buying access to elected officials. All they can do is turn up the volume, educate, and work to attract more people to the cause.
"We don't have a voice in the government, so our best hope is public opinion," Hansen says. "We might get beaten a lot, but we're not giving up. The best thing people can do to help is join an organization that shares our philosophy. Join the River Alliance, or the Sierra Club. Join a conservation group or one of the lake and river protection groups. Get involved. Finally, as painful as it may seem, get to know your local legislators."
Unfortunately, if recent activity is any indication, the legislature isn't listening yet, and official state policy on groundwater pumping remains sad but simple: potatoes trump people.