The state’s quarry industry is watching nervously as the state assembles a bill that would change the rules governing groundwater use.
The fact that the changes would remain a mystery until local panels step in just makes it that much more agonizing for companies, said Pat Osborne, executive director of the Aggregate Producers of Wisconsin Inc.
“One of the things that business people need with regulation is definition,” Osborne said. “They need to know what will be required and what it’s going to take to get approval.”
Groundwater is essential to quarry operations. Companies drain water from deep mines and dump it in wells. The companies also use water to clean rocks and soak stones to prevent dust clouds.
But just like any other business, quarries must get state permits to use the wells, and they must follow rules for how much and how quickly water is used. But even quarries that have followed the rules could face new permit requirements.
For a quarry that uses groundwater to rinse stone before selling it, Osborne said, a permit change reducing water use would affect how much clean stone the quarry can produce and sell.
The effect could be more severe for deeper quarries where businesses pump water out of mining areas and into wells. If a permit forbids a quarry from pumping water out of its mining area more quickly than water is flowing in, it could be the end of the operation.
“When you are talking about imposing undefined regulations on an already existing well,” Osborne said, “that raises a whole host of issues.”
The consternation arises from a groundwater bill introduced in the Wisconsin Legislature in March. The bill, which has not yet received a vote, would create a system in which regional task forces could change the rules for water well permits with state approval. But the bill does not define what the new regulations might be.
Still, the lack of certainty should not spook quarry owners, said Ezra Meyer, water resources specialist for Clean Wisconsin Inc. The bill, he said, is designed with flexibility to solve groundwater shortages because different areas have different reasons for a lack of groundwater.
Some areas have less severe shortages than others, Meyer said, and would not have to conserve as much water.
“You can’t go so specific in any level of policymaking to cover such different, on-the-ground issues,” he said.
The task force members who would draft regional rules would be chosen by members of county governments within each region. Meyer said Clean Wisconsin supports amending the bill to require different stakeholders, such as businesses that have water well permits, be included in the local task forces.
Meyer said the permit changes would not be severe enough to force wells to close or put companies out of business. The responsibility to decrease water use would be spread out among many permits, so each one should see only incremental changes, he said.
Permit holders would have years to prepare for the rule change if the groundwater bill passes the Legislature, Meyer said. It would take a few years to define which areas of the state would be eligible for the rule changes, and even more to set up panels to craft rule changes that the DNR and local governments approve, he said.
But it’s the wait and uncertainty that test the industry’s patience, Osborne said. The Legislature, he said, should fill in the blanks before passing a law.
“We think that it requires a lot more work before it can pass,” Osborne said.