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Lawmakers dip their feet in groundwater debate

Paul Snyder

Wisconsin legislators seeking tougher groundwater regulations are hearing the same message from development and environmental groups: Be careful who you pick on.

“I think it will be a problem for developers,” said Tom Larson, director of regulatory and legislative affairs for the Wisconsin Realtors Association. “I understand the quality and quantity issues, and certainly without high-quality groundwater, you’re not going to have people moving here.

“But they’ve got to figure out what types of activity and industry they’re going after.”

State Rep. Spencer Black, D-Madison, said there is no specific target at this point. But he said too many take the state’s groundwater for granted, and it faces threats from activities ranging from development to irrigation.

The Assembly Committee on Natural Resources and the Senate Committee on Environment held a joint hearing in Madison on Wednesday to hear testimony about the state’s groundwater supply and laws in place to protect it. The committees will use the information to start work on a groundwater-protection bill.

Todd Ambs, water division administrator for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said the state has done a good job with groundwater protections, such as limiting the construction of high-capacity wells to within 1,200 feet of resource water, which feeds other bodies of water or sustains aquatic life. But he said it is just a first step.

The DNR, Ambs said, needs better tools to assess the effects wells have on the groundwater supply.

“It would be the wrong approach to just be able to say yes or no to a single applicant for a high-capacity well,” Ambs said. “Regulating the last straw in the glass only addresses the symptom. The problem is too many straws in the glass.”

But Ken Bradbury, a hydrogeology professor for the University of Wisconsin-Extension and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said lawmakers should be cautious of taking regulations to an opposite extreme, such as creating rules for all well construction throughout the state. That could be unfair because some areas, such as Waukesha County, have groundwater problems, while others, such as Dunn County, have a strong groundwater supply.

Marquette County would fall into the same category as Dunn, said Patrick Kilbey, Marquette County’s conservationist, but that does not mean the groundwater is immune to the dangers of development. He said the state needs to better regulate high-capacity well construction, or developers could tap out what is available.

For example, Crystal Geyser Alpine Spring Water/CG Roxane LLC, San Francisco, is considering construction of a bottling plant in Oxford, Kilbey said. Although the project would help the local economy, he said, the environmental dangers merit equal consideration.

“We have to live here for a long time,” Kilbey said. “Sacrificing the environmental impacts for a few jobs is not the perfect mix.”

Page Beykpour, Crystal Geyser’s executive vice president, said the company does not have firm plans to build in Wisconsin.

“We’ve looked at Oxford as one of several options around the country we’re considering,” he said. “We’ve talked with a few grass-roots organizations there, but we’ve not completed any testing or economic-impact studies. It’s simply under consideration.”

Beykpour said the company takes several factors into consideration when choosing a site for a bottling plant, including groundwater supply.

“We simply follow the law,” he said. “We’re not looking at whether the state would or would not change its laws.”

But developers who want to build water-bottling factories and breweries could be affected by the changes, Larson said, and lawmakers need to be careful.

“They’ve got to make sure that nobody’s exempt from whatever rules come forward,” he said. “And they need to move slowly and don’t attempt to do too much too soon.”

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