• It occurred to me that farmers and fishermen aren’t the only two groups affected by this water controversy; homeowners who spend muco-bucks on lake front property also have been adversely impacted.

  • Rebecca Katers

    History repeats itself.

    In the late 1980s, I served as the token environmental rep on a state Legislative Advisory Committee on Water Quantity, chaired by Senator Chuck Chvala, where these same issues were debated at length.

    At that time, high-capacity wells and deep gravel quarries (which require constant groundwater pumping to keep dry) were sucking water out of Wisconsin lakes and streams, and causing severe hardships for waterfront property owners and wildlife. (Sound familiar?)

    This advisory committee included aggressive lobbyists for the dairy, potato, cranberry, and quarry industries, as well as the Farm Bureau. They used the same lame arguments then as now, and after a year of many frustrating meetings, they succeeded in blocking the committee from achieving much of anything.

    When it became clear that the Ag Lobby had too much political power and there was no hope of getting anything done in the Legislature, the committee was dismantled.

    Whenever big money is involved, government services and regulations seem to get twisted.

    The original thrust of the committee creators had been to give the DNR the authority to monitor, regulate and conserve groundwater (and linked surface water) quantities in order to maintain balanced, sustainable water supplies for a sensible mix of users.

    That would have been a rational expectation, if our society’s leaders were rational, responsible, caring adults.

    But in the end, I think our committee only managed to modestly improve the DNR’s data collection authority regarding high-cap wells. That was all. (In the 1980s, the DNR had shockingly incomplete data on water use in Wisconsin.)

    It’s discouraging to read now that the SAME issues and arguments are resurfacing as if this is all new, unexplored territory. Nobody seems to realize this has all happened before (… perhaps many times and in many different venues?)

    When humans are involved, the day of reckoning seems to get pushed-off to the future whenever possible. Why tackle difficult problems when they can avoid facing-up to them and simply leave them for the next generation to suffer or fix?

    Wisconsin desperately needs reasonable water quantity regulations, but as always, selfish people will continually fight against rule making. And because selfishness is a strong motivator, it gives them political power.

    They don’t care who they hurt in the future, so long as their own prosperity is ensured for their own lifetimes.

    It’s a sickening basic flaw in human nature.

  • Tom Stelow

    It is amazing how people seem to make this “Farming vs. Everything Else.” People need water to drink. People need food to eat. Farming feeds people and uses water, yet it seems that farming is being made the scapegoat for poor water management in other areas. There are a couple of pertinent facts — not just in Wisconsin but in the country: There is much less farmland and many more people than there were five or six decades ago.

    Those people are still eating and still need farmers (a far fewer number than in the 1950s and 1960s) to grow that food.

    Perhaps other water uses are the issue, such as use on washing down houses, non-food producing gardens, public building green spaces and decorative growth, golf courses, schools, industrial, etc.

    What is the deal with throwing all the blame at people who – and yes, for a profit and a job – produce the very thing that keeps people alive, people who continue to use much more water than they did in the past — even as their numbers grow – on things that have no bearing on the essential water and food that they need?

    • Rebecca Katers

      Tom – I agree there are several types of water use that could be contributing to some of the groundwater drawdowns in the Central Sands region, but the data shows that the proliferation of high-capacity wells is the major new factor causing harm, and most of those wells are for agriculture.

      People aren’t pointing fingers at ag users for no reason!

      What seems to be missing is a willingness for the powerful agricultural sector to “own up” to its significant role and be willing to submit to long-term monitoring and regulation along with all other users.

      What’s wrong with sitting down to hold rational discussions about the relative needs and merits of all the different water users and developing a smart conservation plan that will minimize the pain for each sector?

      If nothing is done, we’ll continue to see a crazy, destructive “free-for-all” out there, which hurts every sector’s long term interests.

      As you point out, the human population continues to grow, so conflicts will just get worse if we don’t establish basic, fair minded, reasonable water regulations for all major users. (If residential users are shown to equal ag users in creating problems, then I agree we need residential regulation also.)

      If you can propose reasonable or effective solutions to the groundwater drawdowns, I’m sure they’d get serious consideration.

      Nobody wants to kill farming!

  • Rebecca Katers

    I would love to see a professional, peer-reviewed, and fully independent analysis of the total annual economic value of the Natural Resource Damages caused by lake and stream drawdowns in the Central Sands region … totaling the lost property values, lost taxation base for local governments, stranded business investments, lost tourism economies, lost jobs, wasted government infrastructure investments (for stranded public boat landings, docks, waterfront parks, bridges, beaches, government boats, and other taxpayer investments made useless.)

    A good Natural Resources Economist could also add in the dollar value per year of all the lost individual recreation opportunities for local residents and tourists. (UW-Madison has professors who are national experts in this field of study.)

    The lost human food and fur value of the disappearing aquatic plants, fish, turtles, frogs, ducks, geese, fur-bearers and other wild game could also be included. Low-income people are undoubtedly losing important free sources of subsistence foods and other resources in these dried-up public waterways.

    And finally, I’m sure an expert could estimate the economic cost of the emotional stress, anger, anxiety, sleeplessness and depression that the drawdowns are causing among affected people in the Central Sands. (Damages could include significant lost work, reduced productivity, increased medical costs, relationship conflicts, suicides, hastened natural deaths, and even increased delinquency and crime.) Such widespread devastation of lakes and streams is bound to create serious social consequences for more than a few local residents suffering from major economic losses and a greatly reduced quality of life.

    Who wouldn’t be profoundly upset if they used their life savings to buy their lifelong dream of a house on a beautiful Wisconsin lake, only to lose the lake and 60% of their investment a year later! And what if they NEED to sell the house now and can’t? (I would be catatonic if all that happened to me!)

    If a full report totaled all this damage for the entire Central Sands Region and translated it into DOLLARS, it would clearly show a huge number.

    Perhaps then, farmers would finally have to face up to the true costs of disappearing lakes and streams, and honestly ask themselves whether a relatively small group of high-cap well operators have a right to cause this much economic and social damage to the people around them.

    But we shouldn’t even NEED such an expensive and time-consuming study, when everyone should already get the gist of what it would show. The “Big Number” that would result should be obvious, even to farmers. It’s common sense.

    There has to be a better answer to this groundwater conflict than just waiting around … doing nothing while hundreds of new high-cap wells are built, more waterways dry up, and more lives are ruined.

  • Omri

    It’s ridiculous to call center pivot irrigation systems “efficient” when you constantly see them in use during the day.

    • Rebecca Katers

      Omri raises an important point. Farmers claim to be as water-efficient as possible, but has anyone verified that this is true? Are they ALL efficient, or only some of them?

      Key question: Is any independent agency tracking the amount of water used per farmer, per acre, per type of crop … or are water usage rates still only SELF-REPORTED by farmers using an honor system?

      In other words, are there mechanized, tamper-proof meters permanently recording and transmitting pumping rates and total daily hours of operation on every well? Are there frequent checks by government inspectors to make sure the meters are operating properly and that gathered data is accurate? I’m guessing not, but would love to know. If inspectors exist, are their visits random and unannounced, or do they give advance notice and allow farmers time to “tidy up”?)

      From reading the state statute, it appears the DNR is forced to simply TRUST the total withdrawal numbers reported by farmers once each year.

      ACTUAL groundwater pumping rates may be substantially higher, and not properly factored into computer models used to explain well impacts. The models could be skewed badly due to GIGO data (Garbage In = Garbage Out.)

      Also, is there truly no other farming method, or additional control, these farmers could use to lower their water usage? If there are, how costly are they? Are they cost prohibitive? By how much? Relative to what? In whose opinion?

      And how was all that land used before irrigation? It was never a desert. Did it produce a different type of crop that still had significant economic and social value? Even if it was used solely for forest products, I suspect it was still economically worthwhile land. Tree roots could easily reach such a high water table.

      Currently, the water is FREE and apparently UNLIMITED for these farmers (due to lack of independent monitoring), so the only cost of irrigation is for energy and equipment. So farmers have an economic motivation to conserve energy and manage their equipment carefully … but they have ZERO economic or legal motivation to conserve water (beyond the cost of pumping it).

      If farmers were charged as much as the nearest residential users of municipal water supplies (minus filtration/disinfection costs), what would these farmers pay and how would they farm differently? (Here in Green Bay, water is expensive for residential users, so many of us are careful about the quantity we use.)

      What if Wisconsin placed a tiny surcharge of $ 0.0001 (a 100th of a penny) or a little more on every gallon of water extracted by every well in the state, applied equally to all users? The state could use such user fees to fund greatly improved tracking and analysis of water use, as well as greatly improved inspections and enforcement. It could also fund research into new cost-effective water conservation methods and more drought-tolerant crops. It might even be used to “buy-out” and retire excessive users.

      It could be a self-supporting program, with no taxpayer subsidy of any kind required.

      If a farmer used 100,000 gallons per day for roughly 3 months, such a surcharge would equal $900 per year. If a farmer used 1,000,000 gallons per day, it would be $9,000 per year. If a farmer had many wells and used a LOT more water, the cost might finally be enough to motivate them to conserve water.

      The surcharge could start at 1,000th of a penny per gallon for a few years, to give farmers time to adapt. Then it could rise to a 100th of a penny at year 3, then even a 10th of penny after 5 years or so, to make sure the water is properly valued and conserved.

      I’m pretty sure that an economic incentive tied to consumption rates would greatly increase water conservation by all users, so long as well extraction rates are accurately tracked. (Municipal well users would still pay more per gallon than farmers because of added treatment costs.)

      The surcharge could start phasing-in right away (or after a few years of legislative bickering). A few years later, the research data funded by the fee could be used to develop a fair and transparent management plan allowing a maximum of agricultural, industrial and residential uses while still maintaining Wisconsin’s natural lakes, streams and wetlands at sustainable levels.

      Perhaps the state could create a “cap and trade” system for irrigation, where farmers could openly buy and sell irrigation credits … though first I’d like to see a thorough economic study of the long term evolution of such a system. I couldn’t support it if credits could gradually be horded by just a few wealthy ag industries who would buy up and permanently “own” all irrigation rights in Wisconsin. If strict limits could be placed on hording and some credits could be kept reserved for new farmers, then it might be OK.

      (A version of this system has been used here on the Fox River for years, for distributing the “right” to discharge a regulated total amount of polluted wastewater into the river and bay of Green Bay. The idea bothers me, but it seems to work given that many people’s brains are hardwired to economic values only.)

  • Richard Mertens

    High capacity pumpers are engaged in theft of a public resource just as anyone who would capture whitetails for a private fenced in hunting reserve and then sell them to the highest bidder for a canned hunt. I feel for these farmers but the handwriting is on the wall, in neon, that way too much water is being pumped and the results are detrimental to every single water interest there is unless one’s water interest is to have no water. It may be a traditional family business to grow potatoes in sand but that no less makes it a foolish one and about the only advice I can offer farmers is that they need to start adjusting their expectations and that they may have leave for better parts of the country to conduct their business. I now live in Indiana and for all the goofy things they do down here they have gotten one thing right–if a farmer, or anyone, pumps so much water that it dries up their neighbor’s wells you pay for a new well and if that does not solve the problem you buy the property at a premium. Last year in White and Benton counties, rural homes lost their wells due to overpumping and the DNR was on the farmers like white on rice to make those affected whole immediately. It certainly has caused farmers pause how and when they water if they suddenly might be responsible for daily water deliveries, new wells, etc. And as well it should. Congratulations, Wisconsin, you now get to live with those you elected and they’ve decided ‘little people’ are a nuisance and undeserving of even having the most basic of life needs, water.

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