water protection laws shouldn't be watered down
By Denny Caneff
The Capital Times
Eat a french fry, flush your toilet, water your plants,
sip a latte, top off your radiator, grill your tofu, watch
the hockey Badgers skate.
None of these acts would be possible without ground water.
It is so plentiful, so readily available, so automatically
there, that we never think about it. Farmers joke about
kids who think that milk comes from a store. Most of us
may be no wiser than those kids in thinking that water
comes from a faucet.
Most of the water that flows out of taps in Wisconsin
comes from vast underground sources. But if there's so
much ground water, why should we worry about how much
we're using? And why are people working hard, right now,
to make a law that would control the amount of water drawn
out of the ground?
There are two big, and urgent, reasons. One is the steady,
inexorable "chronic" drawing down of ground
water from heavy (mostly urban) use. The urgency of this
problem is illustrated in Waukesha County, where communities
are drawing water out of the ground faster than it can
be recharged. Not only that, the wells are drawing water
from so deep underground that they're pulling up water
tainted with radium. Radium is not uncommon in water from
Waukesha (and many Chicago suburbs) are looking to the
east for the answer - the liquid (and radium-free) vastness
of Lake Michigan. But tapping Lake Michigan does not solve
the ground water problem. It runs afoul of water use treaties
with Canada, puts a new strain on an already compromised
water body, and leaves us off the hook for meeting the
ground water challenge.
The other urgent reason for addressing ground water use
with can be summed up in three words: "Polar Ice"
and "Perrier." Both companies want to draw hundreds
of thousands of gallons of water from underground, bottle
it, and ship it out of state. Perrier was virtually run
out of Wisconsin; Polar Ice wants permission to put up
a controversial plant in Langlade County.
These "acute" uses of ground water may seem
benign, given the quadrillions of gallons of water underneath
the state. But drawing water from underground directly
affects water on the surface. As large amounts of water
are pulled from the ground, the springs and rivers that
ground water feeds will dry up. It works not unlike drinking
a milkshake with a straw: the straw may be drawing from
the bottom the glass, but the "top" of the milkshake
is dropping as you suck.
Two years ago, the River Alliance of Wisconsin began
discussions with the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers
Association to draw up broad principles for ground water
protection legislation. The potato and vegetable growers
need ground water to irrigate their crops. Our interest
was to keep the rivers and streams, whose very origins
are ground water, flowing and healthy, and for the pure
sake of wise use and conservation of water.
In the past month, industrial, agricultural, municipal
and conservation interests, joined by regulators and working
with the valuable guidance of Rep. Dwayne Johnsrud and
Sen. Neal Kedzie, have been working out details of ground
water protection legislation. In our view, a good ground
water law has to:
Place a bright line around high-quality surface waters
and headwaters. Inside that line, regulators will have
the authority to strictly regulate ground water use.
Give communities with acute ground water challenges the
authority and tools to regulate ground water use, and
impose conservation measures if they see fit.
Provide enough resources to improve data-gathering on
ground water use and to run an effective ground water
Create a "relocation fund" for a landowner
or industry whose ground water use threatens surface water.
Those are the broad outlines of a good ground water quantity
protection law. We urge legislators to adhere to these
principles as they review draft legislation in the coming
weeks, and to resist the temptation to water down the
legislation to placate any one constituency or special
interest. A ground water law that does not adhere to the
principles above is not worth passing this year.