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Wisconsin DNR Swamped With Applications for Irrigation Wells

July 27, 2008

By Ron Seely, The Wisconsin State Journal

Jul. 27–The state Department of Natural Resources has been swamped by a dramatic increase in applications for high-capacity irrigation wells throughout the state, including many in areas where drought and irrigation continue to affect the levels of some streams and lakes.

Last year, between January and July, the agency approved 66 of the high-capacity agricultural wells statewide. This year, during the same period, the agency has approved 116 of the powerful irrigation wells. High-capacity wells are defined as those that pump at least 100,000 gallons a day. The irrigation wells can pump as much as 1.4 million gallons a day.

The DNR has little authority to conduct environmental reviews of such wells even though recent studies show they may be damaging rivers and lakes, especially in the dry and sandy central parts of the state where many of them are being built to irrigate vegetable and corn crops.

Nearly all of the requests for wells are being approved, said Mark Putra, private water supply section chief for the DNR.

“We’ve put some conditions on a few wells,” Putra said. “But by and large the applications we’re getting in are in compliance with the law.”

Officials with the DNR and farmers say higher corn prices — driven partly by the demand for ethanol — as well as concern about several straight years of dry weather have prompted the increasing number of applications.

For farmers such as brothers Tim and Steve Harrington, irrigation can mean the difference between success and failure.

The Harrington family has farmed in the Arena area about 30 miles northwest of Madison since the mid-1800s, according to Steve Harrington. But until the brothers started using irrigation on some of their sandy acreage, each year was a gamble.

“On sandy soil, you have to have some guarantee of a return,” Tim Harrington said.

The Harringtons were among the hundreds of Wisconsin farmers who received approval last year to install a new high-capacity irrigation well on their farm, where they grow everything from vegetables and hay to feed corn.

Paul Roberts, a well driller near Stevens Point about 100 miles north of Madison, is also having a busier season than he’s had in years.

“It’s certainly an increase in the amount of business, a dramatic increase,” Roberts said. “What I’ve heard from farmers is that rather than wanting to grow corn for ethanol, their costs have increased so dramatically that their crop is too valuable not to have irrigation.”

With this year’s increase in the construction of high-capacity wells, some are calling for the state’s groundwater law, passed in 2004, to be toughened so that the DNR has authority to review and better regulate more of the wells.

“We really need to have that discussion,” said George Kraft, director of the Central Wisconsin Groundwater Center at UW-Stevens Point. “We can’t afford to continue thinking of this resource as infinite.”

The groundwater law, approved in 2004, is relatively narrow and requires the DNR to review the environmental impacts of a high-capacity well only in the following situations:

— When the well is within 1,200 feet of any waters identified by the DNR as an “Outstanding Resource Water,” such as a pristine lake, or as an “Exceptional Resource Water,” such as a wild river or trout stream.

— When a well has a water loss of more than 95 percent, such as the wells operated by a water bottler.

— When a well may significantly affect a spring that has a minimum flow of one cubic feet per second for at least 80 percent of the time.

Kraft said the law is so narrow that it leaves as much as 90 percent of the state’s surface waters — including many lakes, rivers, wetlands and springs — unprotected. Almost none of the new wells that have been approved by the DNR since January have fallen into any of the categories that would require an environmental review.

Yet dozens of the new wells are being built in areas where drought and irrigation have combined to dry up lakes and rivers during the past two summers. Even with increased rainfall this summer, the Little Plover River near Plover just south of Stevens Point is running at about 8 cubic feet per second instead of its average of between 12 and 13 cfs, Kraft said. The Little Plover, a trout stream, dried up for the first time two summers ago and again last summer. But even when the river runs at lower levels, increasing temperatures can harm trout populations.

Nor has a wetter summer than last year done much to help restore Long Lake near Plainfield and southeast of Wisconsin Rapids in Waushara County. The lake also went dry last summer.

“We certainly don’t have our lake back,” said Long Lake homeowner Brian Wolf. “It’s more of a marsh at this point.”

Wolf said at least two new high-capacity wells are being built near the lake, which doesn’t fall under the categories of surface waters that would require the DNR to conduct an environmental review of proposed wells.

Dozens of the new wells are being installed in central Wisconsin counties with dry, sandy soil and where surface waters have been severely affected by at least three years of drought. Eight high-capacity irrigation wells have been approved in recent months in Waushara County, 14 in Portage County and five in Marquette County.

Other lakes in Waushara County, including nearby Twin Lake, are also experiencing lower water levels, Wolf said.

Until recently, the connection between the irrigation wells and falling water levels in central Wisconsin was more conjecture than anything else. But studies in the last year by Kraft and other researchers with the Central Wisconsin Groundwater Center have shown a clear link between the operation of irrigation wells and drawdowns of area surface waters.

By using historical pumping records and isolating the impact of the irrigation wells from other wells, such as municipal and industrial, Kraft and others have studied their affect on the flows of the Little Plover River. Their studies show that agricultural irrigation wells accounted for a decrease in the flow of the river by more than 5 cubic feet per second.

Computer models used by the researchers also showed that substantial depletions in stream flow can be caused by wells as far as two miles away from the river. This finding is particularly significant considering that the current groundwater law only applies to those wells that are within 1,200 feet of the high-quality streams and lakes.

“We know pretty well now how much water is missing due to irrigation,” Kraft said.

Kraft said the research shows a definitive link between the large irrigation wells and the depletion of surface waters.

The research, Kraft said, should be reason enough to revisit the groundwater law and possibly require more evaluation of the high-capacity wells’ impact on nearby surface waters before the wells are approved.

Todd Ambs, director of the DNR’s water division, said both the dramatic increase in the number of wells and the new research will be part of the discussion in coming months as regulators and legislators consider amending the groundwater law.

“These are added pieces of information to plug into what I hope will be a very important and robust discussion after the first of the year,” Ambs said. “What should be the next step? Should there be a greater scope of locations where we have a higher level of review?”

Ambs said resolving the issue will require balancing the interests of farmers trying to make a living with environmental concerns and with homeowners and others who are affected by decreasing water levels.

Especially with their feed corn crop, irrigation has meant the difference between success and failure for the Harrington brothers on their farm near Arena. Two years ago, during a dry summer, the Harringtons harvested corn from an irrigated field that yielded about 200 bushels to the acre. About a quarter mile away, an unirrigated field yielded a scant 36 bushels to the acre.

“You feel defeated personally,” recalled Steve Harrington of harvesting the drought-plagued crop.

The Harringtons also said the irrigation systems allow the farmers to offset the increasingly steep costs of farming. Two years ago, Tim Harrington said, the brothers spent $70,000 on fertilizer. This year, they spent $150,000.

“You have to guarantee some kind of return on your investment,” Tim Harrington said. “Farming is a highly intense business with lots of financial responsibility and failure. There is a tremendous amount of risk.”

He added that the brothers do not take their use of the area’s water resources lightly. They only run the irrigation systems at night and a computer on board the system monitors and regulates how much water goes on the field.

“As a farmer I’m very aware of water and electrical usage,” Tim Harrington said. “We try to conserve as much as we can.”

But Wolf, the homeowner on dry Long Lake in Waushara County, said he wishes the DNR had put consideration of the large number of wells approved in recent months on hold until review of the groundwater law is completed. He added that there are steps the DNR can take short of just refusing to allow a well. Minnesota, for example, regulates how much can be pumped from irrigation wells during dry periods.

Kraft warned that, unless changes in the law are forthcoming, more lakes and rivers are likely to suffer as more high-capacity wells go in.

“Bottom line is we’re going to have to look at this as a finite resource,” Kraft said.

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