Groundwater Games: What’s Next

Apr 28, 2016 | Citizen Advocacy, Groundwater, Water Policy

Citizen water advocates, working with the River Alliance and other conservation groups, successfully beat back two bad bills in the latest legislative session that would have, at best, made no progress in protecting groundwater and, at worst, set way back water protection in Wisconsin.  Like zombies, both those bills could rise again next year and bring more fear and frustration.

Meanwhile, hydrologists are putting their final touches on a computer modeling tool that would give everyone a clearer picture of how groundwater pumping for irrigation, especially in the Central Sands region, debilitates lake and streams that use the same groundwater as farmers’ irrigation rigs do.

That “model,” commissioned by the Wisconsin DNR and developed by scientists at the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, was tested in the Little Plover River basin, near Stevens Point.  Infamous for drying up during the growing season, when irrigation pumping is heaviest, the Little Plover is the canary of the groundwater coal mine.  Lakes in the region are getting drained from irrigation pumping too, though less dramatically than the Little Plover.

Discovering the obvious

The modeling project was also the result of citizen advocacy that we helped prompt.  Members of the Central Sands Water Action Coalition pushed the DNR to enforce what is called a “public rights flow” for the Little Plover, which it set in 2009.  DNR told us flatly they would never enforce the public rights flow (that would limit pumping to keep water in the river), even though they have clear legal authority to do so.  Instead, they said, we’ll make a model for analyzing groundwater pumping.

Despite our skepticism this was a delaying tactic, we see the value of the modeling tool, which got its first public airing in front of 350 people in Stevens Point two weeks ago.  The scientists confirmed the obvious:  their computer model proved that pumping water out of the ground for irrigation and other purposes (in the Central Sands, the overwhelming use of groundwater is for irrigation) will impact nearby lakes and streams that depend on the same water.

Oblivious to the obvious

That didn’t stop the steady flow of denial by the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association executive Tamas Houlihan, who proclaimed the Little Plover that he sees – this time of year, when there is no pumping going on – is just fine.  This is like standing at 3 a.m. at an intersection notorious for car accidents and claiming there can’t be accidents there because there is little traffic.

The growers have been infamous in their denials and obfuscations over the years about the effect of their pumping on surface waters.  They have also consistently said they want more science to inform the debate.

Okay! We now have the modeling tool to apply to any water body in the Central Sands or anywhere in the state where massive pumping is affecting water supplies.

  • We think it would be a great idea for the growers association to join hands with citizen water advocates in a pitch to the legislature next year. That pitch would seek a million dollars or so to allow the Wisconsin DNR to use this newly developed groundwater modeling tool to get clear to what extent pumping affects nearby surface waters. This is THE issue in that region. Focused and localized impact analyses could put to rest lingering questions of how, or whether or not, pumping takes water from a lake or stream.
  • Growers and citizens could also find common cause about a pet issue for the growers that rankles citizens. The growers want wells that change hands or are moved to not need a new permit to pump.  We would say okay to that, as long as existing wells get some kind of periodic review.