DNR to launch study of groundwater use in the Central Sands region
The state Department of Natural Resources on Wednesday announced plans for a major study on groundwater in central Wisconsin, where critics say growing demand from agriculture and other sources has harmed some streams and lakes.
The project is expected to take more than a year and could prompt changes in the way groundwater and streams and lakes are managed in the 1.75-million acre Central Sands region.
Water issues have loomed over the region for years, but concerns heightened in 2012 when drought conditions spurred massive increases in groundwater pumping.
Agriculture surpassed municipalities as the biggest user of groundwater sources in the state that year, according to a report by the DNR in October.
The region represents half of all irrigation wells in Wisconsin.
Portage County, the largest groundwater user in the state, saw a 65 percent increase in water use in 2012, according to the DNR.
Second-ranked Adams County experienced a 79 percent increase, and third-ranked Waushara County had a 68 percent increase.
There are more than 3,000 high-capacity wells in the region. In 2012, those wells pumped more than 98 billion gallons, the DNR said.
All are in the eight-county Central Sands, where sand and gravel saturated with water have produced a ready supply of water for Wisconsin's large potato and vegetable growing industry.
Wisconsin is the third largest potato-growing state in the country. It ranks first in green beans, second in sweet corn and third in peas.
A DNR official said Wednesday that the agency doesn't expect to advance regulations after the study has been completed. But alternatives will be floated and the findings could prompt changes in water management in the region by the Legislature, said Dan Helsel, who leads water programs in central and western Wisconsin.
Wisconsin regulates high-capacity wells but doesn't manage groundwater supplies like other states, such as Michigan.
The DNR says it doesn't have the authority to reject a high-capacity well application, based on the effects of other wells in the area.
George Kraft, a University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point hydrogeologist, said he hopes the study will produce results that help protect groundwater.
“The problem has been that the DNR hasn't wanted to embrace the basic science” of irrigation's effect on surface waters, Kraft said.
Kenneth R. Bradbury, a hydrogeologist with the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, told a state Senate panel in October that the scientific groundwater experts in the state have concluded that irrigation is having an effect on groundwater, lake levels and stream flows in some areas of the Central Sands.
The DNR intends to summarize known groundwater science for the region and it will analyze natural resource and economic issues tied to ground and surface water.
The Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association says it uses only the amount of water it needs to produce vegetables at a reasonable price.
Also, the industry has reduced potato acreage and switched to other vegetable crops that rely on less water, the group has said.
The association also supports a key study on the Little Plover River in Portage County, which in some spots has run dry in the summer. The study is developing a computer model that could help manage water use in the area.
“We support scientific studies, particularly related to appropriate water use, including the economics surrounding the use of our natural resources,” Duane Maatz, executive director of the association, said in an email.
In the study, the DNR is soliciting public comment. A draft will be released in 2015, the agency said.