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Committtee recommends local solutions to groundwater problems

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Published: January 9, 2007 by the Central Office

Advisory committee also addresses potential problem areas in Dane and Portage counties

MADISON - Local governments in southeastern and northeastern Wisconsin where groundwater levels have dropped significantly in the last century because of pumping would decide among themselves how to manage groundwater resources in their areas, recommends a recently issued report from an advisory committee to lawmakers.

"This is a report that strongly encourages local control over solutions," says Ron Kuehn, chair of the groundwater advisory committee and a representative for agricultural interests. "This is an example of the Department of Natural Resources and the Legislature and the Advisory Committee devising a way for local governments to resolve the issue from the bottom up."

A 2004 law aimed at improving Wisconsin's management of its groundwater created two Groundwater Management Areas (GMAs) where groundwater levels have been drawn down 150 feet or more over the last century because groundwater has been pumped out more quickly than it's been replaced naturally. The Groundwater Advisory Committee, its members selected by Gov. Jim Doyle and legislative leaders to represent agriculture, industry, the environment and municipalities, issued its report to lawmakers in late December to recommend how to manage groundwater in the GMAs. The Groundwater Advisory Committee report [PDF 469KB] is available on the DNR Web site.

Key recommendations limit, for the time being, groundwater management areas to those Brown County and Waukesha County areas identified in legislation and call for affected governments to create comprehensive groundwater management plans that set objectives for groundwater quantity and quality.

The committee recommends that the DNR set by administrative rule the quantity standards under which governments would develop their comprehensive plans, and set the specific requirements for what needs to be in the plans. But the group lays out 15 components they recommend must be in the plan or part of developing the plan, including a conservation component, a public participation component, and that the groundwater management planning must recognize the need to promote local planning and regulation to protect groundwater recharge areas and areas most susceptible to groundwater contamination.

The plans, among other things, would require that after the plan was in place for 10 years, approval and operation of future large capacity wells could be used to require existing wells to reduce pumping, be relocated, or shut down to meet the plan's standards.

The report calls for state funding to help local governments fund the planning and other activities related to developing their comprehensive plan and also to reimburse well owners in situations where relocating, modifying or abandoning a well, or other mitigation activities are deemed necessary.

The plans would be developed by regional planning entities with participation of local governments, owners of large wells, and other interested parties. DNR would step in "only if the local units somehow fail to act in a timely or thorough manner," says Kuehn, an attorney with the Madison-based law firm of DeWitt Ross and Stevens.

Dane County, Portage County areas identified for new classification

Although the advisory group limited the number of Groundwater Management Areas to two, members did consider adding others. Ultimately, the committee recommended that lawmakers create a new classification, Groundwater Attention Areas, in which governments would be encouraged to proactively plan and follow groundwater management strategies to avoid allowing worse groundwater problems to develop.

The two recommended areas are Dane County, where groundwater levels have been drawn down by more than 30 feet in two areas, and the Little Plover River Watershed, the area which feeds the Little Plover River, a trout stream that had segments run dry in 2005 and 2006. Committee members considered adding St. Croix County, part of the fast-growing Twin Cities suburbs using the same groundwater aquifer, but ultimately did not include it under the new classification.

"It's our hope that the Groundwater Attention Area concept will avoid the sort of problems we're seeing in Brown County and Waukesha County," Kuehn says. "The identification of the two GMAs by the 2003 statute in our view, came a bit late. It would have been better if they had been identified for action before their situation became so difficult."

In some cases, the drawdowns in the Groundwater Management Areas have triggered public health threats: communities have drilled deeper wells into bedrock that produces water with high levels of naturally occurring radium, a cancer-causing contaminant. In the Brown County area, construction of new wells in arsenic-bearing bedrock has produced water with high arsenic levels.

Kuehn believes the attention paid to such problems in recent years will help the report's recommendations get the hearing and action they deserve. "We've been water rich for so long it's hard for us to believe we actually have to pay more attention to maintaining this resource. The good news is, there are quite a few people now who recognize we have to treat water as a limited resource and not as an unlimited resource."

The Groundwater Advisory Committee report is one of several interrelated efforts underway in Wisconsin regarding how water quantity is managed. DNR recently conducted public hearings on proposed administrative rules to carry out other provisions of the 2004 law that expanded DNR's authority over proposed high capacity wells to guard against impacts to springs, trout streams and other high quality waters as a result of these wells. A special legislative committee is working on ratifying a 2005 agreement among Great Lakes governors on water management in the basin; at Gov. Doyle's request, DNR and the Public Service Commission have produced a report on ways that water utilities can reduce the amount of water that their customers use, and DNR is working with other tate agencies at the governor's request to develop a statewide water conservation strategy.

In addition to the Groundwater Advisory Committee report [PDF 469KB] being available on the DNR Web site, it is also available by calling (608) 264-6021.

FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: Ron Kuehn, GAC chair - (608) 252-9325; Todd Ambs, DNR - (608) 264-6278; Jill Jonas, DNR - (608) 267-7545

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Last Revised: Tuesday, January 09, 2007