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Great Lakes Article:

Legislators seek study of high-capacity wells' impact on the environment

Article courtesy of Associated Press
October 28, 2001

MADISON, Wis. -- Twenty lawmakers have asked the state Legislative Council to study Wisconsin's mostly unregulated high-capacity wells and their impact on the environment.

The move spearheaded by Rep. Spencer Black, D-Madison, asks the bipartisan office which studies issues that may require legislative action to examine problems caused by the wells.

Current law allows the state Department of Natural Re- sources to turn down permit applications for such a well only if it will hurt a municipal water supply. A high-capacity well is any well that pumps more than 70 gallons of water per minute.

Perrier, the Swiss-owned water-bottling company, has sought to sink high-capacity wells and build a 1,000,000-square-foot plant in central Wisconsin.

Opponents of the Perrier plan -- which is still alive in the Adams County community of Big Springs -- succeeded in getting legislation passed that requires the DNR to more broadly consider the impact of high-capacity wells used by water bottlers. But Black and others argue that legislation is far too narrow.

The DNR has estimated water bottlers account for about 2 percent of the high capacity wells in Wisconsin. The rest of the state's high-capacity wells, including agricultural wells used for intensive irrigation, remain unregulated. Those agricultural wells account for about 41 percent of high-capacity wells in the state.

Experts with the U.S. Geological Survey and the DNR have said high-capacity wells can draw down water levels of nearby lakes, trout streams and wetlands.

"The proposed Perrier well exposed how weak our laws are when it comes to protecting the ground water supply," Black said. "While we have tough anti-pollution laws to protect groundwater quality, ground water quantity is now threatened by high-capacity wells pumping hundreds of gallons of groundwater a day."

Perrier acknowledged in an agreement with the state that the DNR could deny its permit if it found the bottling project would harm the environment, said Perrier spokeswoman Jane Lazgin. "Our project might actually become a model for the kind of authority the state needs to have," Lazgin said. "We're very much in line with Rep. Black's position. Our project is likely to meet or exceed whatever is proposed."

Perrier is building its bottling project in Michigan but has kept its permit for the Big Springs site for possible future use, Lazgin said.

Broader regulation of high-capacity wells met opposition during the last legislative session from farm groups such as the Farm Bureau.

A Legislative Council study was also requested as part of the state budget. But the governor vetoed the study proposal.

Black said he hopes the Legislative Council will consider the request in the spring and said a study could then be completed in time to introduce tougher high-capacity well laws during the 2002 legislative session.

"I think it will be a major item next session," Black said.

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