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Great Lakes Article:

Ground water protection laws shouldn't be watered down
By Denny Caneff
The Capital Times
02/23/04



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 deep wells.

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 management program.

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.

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