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Great Lakes Article:

Groundwater protection law requires state notification of all new wells
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
April 27, 2004

MADISON – A new groundwater protection law that recognizes the connection between ground and surface waters such as lakes, rivers and springs, requires advance notice to the state of any proposed new well in order to assure the wells are located and built correctly to avoid harming groundwater quantity and quality. The groundwater protection bill was signed into law by Gov. Jim Doyle on Earth Day, April 22, 2004.

The law requires owners of all new private residential wells and high capacity wells to notify the state Department of Natural Resources of a proposed well’s location and pay a fee before it’s drilled to make sure wells are properly sited and built from the start. And it directs DNR staff, when considering an application for a high capacity well, to weigh the environmental impact if the proposed well would be located near trout streams, large springs or other sensitive, high quality waters. High capacity wells are those where all wells from a single property pump more than 100,000 gallons a day or 70 gallons a minute.

“The governor and legislative leaders recognized the critical interrelationship of groundwater and surface waters with this legislation, and that all wells – not just high capacity wells – can have an impact on groundwater quantity and quality,” says Todd Ambs, who leads the Department of Natural Resources Water Division. “This legislation represents a significant first step in water quantity management, and it continues Wisconsin’s proud tradition of leading the nation in groundwater protection.”

More than 17,000 new wells are drilled every year in Wisconsin, adding to the existing 800,000 private residential wells and the more than 11,000 high capacity wells. Statewide water use has soared 33 percent over the past 15 years, and water tables are plummeting in many urban areas -- 450 feet around Milwaukee and Waukesha, more than 300 feet in the Green Bay area, and about 60 feet in Dane County. The resulting long-term drops in groundwater levels are affecting the quantity and quality of water available to communities, private well users, and in some cases to the lakes, rivers, wetlands and springs that depend on them for year-round flow. In addition, the dropping water table in some places is releasing naturally-occurring radium and arsenic into drinking water.

The new groundwater quantity law doesn’t protect all of the water resources that need protection, but it’s a start, Ambs says. Perhaps most importantly for future efforts, it was developed through a broad, inclusive process and enjoyed bipartisan legislative support: the bill passed 99-0 in the Assembly and 31-1 in the Senate.

“We have crossed a major hurdle in the passage of this legislation, with more to follow,” Ambs says. “The next most significant hurdle is acquiring the funds and positions necessary to adequately implement the new law.”

Advance notice of all new wells required
The law allows the state for the first time to systematically track and inspect the construction of all new wells – both private residential and high capacity wells -- to assure they’re properly located and built. Such tracking aims to help the state avoid situations in which new wells reduce the amount of groundwater available to other users or to lakes, rivers, and other natural resources.

“From the very beginning, the law’s sponsors and subcommittee recognized that this law needed to be proactive and emphasize protection but not be cumbersome,” says Jill Jonas, who leads the DNR drinking water and groundwater program.

“It’s critical that we look at wells as they’re going in – being drilled and grouted – to make sure they’re located and constructed right in the first place,” she says. “Private well owners will benefit from having greater assurance that their wells are properly constructed and providing them with safe drinking water.”

Well drillers have long had to meet state standards for well construction, but less than 2 percent of wells were being inspected during construction because of limited state staff. The new fees will pay for the new staff and resources necessary to carry out this new well tracking and inspection program. The fees will be $50 for private wells and $500 for high capacity wells. Every year, 200 to 250 of the 17,000 new wells drilled are high capacity wells; the remainder are private wells.

Review of High Capacity wells
One of the most significant changes by the new groundwater law is that it directs DNR to review environmental consequences of proposed high capacity wells in certain situations:

within 1,200 feet of any surface water identified as an “outstanding resource water” (like a pristine lake), an “exceptional resource water” (like a wild river) or trout stream;
a well that has a water loss of more than 95 percent of the water withdrawn (like a beverage bottler);
any well that may significantly affect a spring that has a minimum flow of one cubic foot per second for a least 80 percent of the time.
This gives DNR the authority to deny well applications yet flexibility to allow wells in whole or part if the environment is not threatened, Ambs says. Previously, the agency could deny a high capacity well application only if would have an impact on a nearby municipal well.

The law also directs the agency to establish Groundwater Management Areas around Brown and Waukesha counties, where water drawdown is already a significant problem and where over pumping is creating water quality problems with arsenic, radium, and salinity.

Finally, the law establishes a Groundwater Advisory Committee, which will recommend, by the end of 2006, what ought to be done in these larger drawdown areas, and will review, by the end of 2007, how the law is working. If the group doesn’t provide substantive recommendations, the law gives DNR authority to write rules making needed changes, Ambs says.

FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: Todd Ambs - (608) 264-6278 or Jill Jonas - (608) 267-7545


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