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View from around the state: Law erodes environmental oversight

The Senate on Wednesday passed a bill that relaxes regulations on high-capacity wells.

Proponents of the bill include mainly agri-business industry, such as the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association and the Dairy Business Association, with conservationists and waterfront property owners opposed.

The bill would exempt current high-capacity wells from oversight for well repairs or maintenance, construction of a replacement well, reconstruction of a well and transfer of ownership.

This comes after state Attorney General Brad Schimel concluded that the state Department of Natural Resources didn’t have the authority to consider the downstream effects of high-capacity wells when approving permits.

The Senate sent the law to the Assembly on a 19-13 vote — Sens. Rob Cowles, R-Allouez, voted for it; Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, against it; Frank Lasee, R-Ledgeview, didn’t vote.

What’s most troubling is the neutering of the state’s regulatory agencies. It’s a trend we’re seeing at the federal level as well. In this case, the DNR’s oversight of these wells has been watered down.

Many of these environmental regulations targeted for elimination, both from the federal and state levels, are there for a reason — to ensure that an entity doesn’t contaminate or degrade a natural resource so that it can’t be used by others.

We have a rich history of that — look at the dumping of PCBs into the Fox River. The city of Waukesha wants to get its drinking water from Lake Michigan after overpumping of groundwater led to radium contamination in its wells.

We’ve needed regulations to save us from ourselves, at times.

With water, we’re talking about a resource essential to life. The needs of the many can’t be sacrificed for the gains of the few.

Not only is clean drinking water necessary, but surface and navigable waters are key to our state’s tourism economy.

Drained rivers and lakes would have a disastrous impact on tourism. People who come here to hunt, fish and recreate would have to find a new playground. The economic impact would hurt those communities that rely on those visitors.

The Central Sands region is really feeling the impact. It’s a 1.75 million acre region in central Wisconsin that’s home to potato and vegetable farming as well as 800 miles of trout streams and 300 lakes.

The increase in the number of high-capacity wells, which can pump more than 100,000 gallons of water per day, has exploded in the last 30 years. From 2000 to 2015, they have increased statewide by 54 percent, to 10,456, according to the DNR.

It’s not just the Central Sands region, either, that has seen that rise. Concentrated animal feeding operations also use high-capacity wells, and their numbers have increased greatly in northeastern Wisconsin.

With no DNR oversight of usage by established wells, they could be used, well, forever.

The Assembly still has to act on the bill. To be clear, the law doesn’t apply to new wells and it establishes a “designated study area” of the Central Sands region to evaluate the hydrology and possibly alter permit requirements.

We believe the state’s groundwater needs to be vigorously protected. Its protection and its use for agricultural and industry must be balanced. However, we don’t believe that relaxing these regulations is the answer, and we shouldn’t swing from too much government oversight to too little.

— Green Bay Press-Gazette

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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