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Senate debates relaxing well regulations

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Republicans in the state Senate moved a bill that would relax Wisconsin’s high-capacity well regulations to the brink of adoption Tuesday evening before Democrats used a procedural move to delay the final vote until Wednesday morning.

The bill has been one of the most contentious pieces of legislation lawmakers have taken up so far this session. The measure would exempt well repairs, replacements, reconstructions and ownership transfers from Department of Natural Resources oversight. The DNR would still have to evaluate water bodies in the central sands region to determine if special measures are needed to protect streams and lakes from depletion, but conservationists nonetheless see the proposal as a giveaway to farmers that jeopardizes the state’s waters.

The Senate took the legislation up Tuesday afternoon. Minority Democrats spent nearly three hours criticizing the bill.

As Republicans prepared to take the final vote and move the proposal to the Assembly, Democrats angry that the Senate’s labor committee approved the bill on a paper ballot with no debate, objected to the bill’s final reading. That move means the Senate can’t vote until its next scheduled business day, which in this case is Wednesday.

But the move backfired on the Democrats. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, the bill’s chief author, ordered the Senate to reconvene for the vote at 8 a.m. Wednesday. Eight senators on the Legislature’s finance committee have to be in suburban Milwaukee by 10 a.m. for a public hearing on Gov. Scott Walker’s budget proposal. Fitzgerald could shorten debate to ensure the Republican committee members can get to the hearing on time, or he could allow debate to go on and make the Democratic members late for the hearing.

Sen. Lena Taylor, a Milwaukee Democrat who sits on the finance committee, accused Fitzgerald of holding senators hostage. Fitzgerald responded that Democrats could solve the problem by allowing a vote Tuesday evening.

“That’s a ridiculous request,” Taylor shot back.

High-capacity wells, defined as wells that can withdraw more than 100,000 gallons of water per day, have evolved into one of the hottest environmental issues in Wisconsin in recent years. More large livestock farms have installed them to hydrate their herds and farmers have been turning them to fuel large-scale irrigation, intensifying fears among environmentalists and lake property owners that the wells are draining aquifers and depleting streams and lakes.

Nowhere is the issue more contentious than in the central sands, a 1.75 million-acre region in the middle of the state.

The region has more than 800 miles of trout streams and 300 lakes. The area also is home to the state’s potato-farming industry, which relies heavily on high-capacity wells for irrigation. The area’s sandy soil holds little moisture, however, leading to charges by conservationists that the region’s wells are sucking lakes and streams dry.

Democratic Sen. Mark Miller of Monona told Republicans during the debate that Fitzgerald’s bill allows well owners to use as much water as they want in perpetuity since all checks on usage would vanish.

Fitzgerald maintained that the legislation strikes a balance between agriculture and everyone else. He pointed out that the bill requires the DNR to study the central sands’ hydrology and the findings could lead to new permit requirements. But legislators shouldn’t overwhelm farmers with burdensome regulation, he said.

Democrats also sparred with Republican Sen. Steve Nass of Whitewater. Nass chairs the Senate’s labor committee and decided last week to approve the bill on a paper ballot rather than convene the committee for debate and an in-person vote. Miller called the move “disrespectful.”

Nass insisted that no one submitted any amendments to the bill until the day before the paper ballot went out so he thought no one wanted to change the bill.

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