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Waters of Wisconsin Program Blog


Water, Water Everywhere—But Sometimes Those Drops Can Sink

Tue, 11/11/2014 - 11:36am -- Todd Ambs

The campaign TV ads have stopped, the robocalls have ended, and the campaign literature is on the way to the recycle bin. We know that we have a more Republican State Legislature, a new Republican Attorney General, and another term for Governor Scott Walker.

As Wisconsin shifts to its next era in state government, one question is, “How will we address water policy?”

We have an abundance of water—especially groundwater—in much of our state. In many parts of the Wisconsin, that water is more than adequate to fill all of our needs, from industrial use and agricultural irrigation, to human consumption.

And, yet, we also know that in other parts of Wisconsin 10,000-year-old rivers are running dry, and seepage lakes are literally disappearing in front of homeowners’ eyes.

The image above, from the Friends of the Little Plover River, shows what can happen to our waters when there is a lack of groundwater management. In 2013, American Rivers named the Little Plover the fourth most-endangered river in the Unites States due to "poor groundwater management," which it claims is a statewide problem.

How can this be? And what can Wisconsin do in the current climate of water policy?

In this short essay, I hope to offer a path forward for how we might tackle the challenge of water quantity concerns in this public policy climate. I believe that there are some lessons to learn by looking to our neighbors to the west (Minnesota) and east (Michigan).

There are some key points applicable to all three states:

  • Each state has some regulation of high capacity groundwater wells.
  • Each state uses data and modelling to determine if those wells cause an adverse environmental impact.

There are also some key differences:

  • Minnesota and Michigan both have systems in place to adaptively manage the regulatory process, as well as respond to changing science.
  • Michigan and Minnesota both look at cumulative impacts of multiple wells in a watershed.
  • Michigan and Minnesota regulate all well requests in the same way, regardless of proximity to surface water resources.

Numerous discussions with regulators, the regulated, and present and former elected officials in Minnesota and Michigan have led me to one conclusion: Wisconsin is far behind both of its neighbors in designing a system to manage this precious groundwater resources. Space does not permit me to go into all of the specifics of the structures in each state, but officials in the WDNR, legislative leaders, and staff in the Governor’s office should take a hard look at what our neighbors are doing.

This should have nothing to do with partisan politics. Democrats run Minnesota’s Legislature and Governor’s office. Michigan has a Republican Governor and Legislature. So how are things working in these respective states and how could they be replicated here in Wisconsin?


1. Both Minnesota and Michigan are continually working to update the data that they gather to make decisions on groundwater withdrawal requests.

Michigan set up an online screening tool where applicants go to request new groundwater supplies. The system was only put in place five years ago but Michigan is working to refine it and the models that inform the decisions—cognizant of the need to always look for ways to improve the process.

Minnesota’s legislature actually directed the Minnesota DNR to better assess the cumulative impacts of multiple wells and is allocating resources to make those assessments.

Wisconsin, meanwhile, has done nothing to improve the only meaningful water quantity legislation passed here—now more than a decade ago. That legislation was hailed as a good first step at the time, but it is well past time to update it.


2. When water resources are threatened, both Minnesota and Michigan say “no” to groundwater withdrawal requests.*(see update at the end of the post)

Since Michigan’s program began in 2009, approximately 80% of the registrations for a withdrawal have been automatically approved and registered through the Online Screening Tool. Most of the other requests were subjected to site-specific reviews. To date, Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality has denied about 15-20 registrations. Those registrants then have two options:

  • Go to court to apply for allocation based on the Reasonable Use Doctrine in Michigan (pg 2)—similar to Wisconsin; or
  • See if they can gain access to water in the sub-watershed from users that have already been permitted.

So far, all of the new registrants have been able to avoid litigation and secure access to water by working with previously permitted users to share some of their authorized water withdrawal capacity.

Minnesota has a hierarchy of users. When drought conditions persist, the Minnesota DNR can and does shut off certain users to prevent adverse impacts to surface waters. Users, including agricultural irrigators, know that there are no guarantees of water when Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate.

Wisconsin can take the best of both of these systems. Much of the state has ample groundwater resources. The complicated system that we now have (which does not protect groundwater nearly as well) can be made more efficient. But those places where we already have water budgets that are way out of balance must face reality. The good news is that we have examples right next door to guide those difficult decisions.


3. Both Minnesota and Michigan spent real money to set up their systems.

Minnesota funds their program with a robust annual fee on all users based on the amount of water used.

Michigan’s program is not well funded on an annual basis but they did spend more than $7 million to set up their online review system.

Wisconsin has a fee for new residential and high capacity wells that funds its program. Neither fee has been raised in over a decade. Increasing these fees could be a pretty painless way to find additional resources.


4. Wisconsin’s State Government has a responsibility to act.

While it’s true that Wisconsin has enough groundwater that it would be more than one hundred feet deep if it were laid evenly over the state, Mother Nature doesn’t distribute water that way. As a result, we have many water-rich areas in Wisconsin, as well as some very water-challenged regions where the state’s lack of effective groundwater management is failing to address the problem. This will continue unless we take action.

We have a responsibility to design a system that prevents rivers from running dry.

We have a responsibility to prevent seepage lakes from vanishing as we add more straws to a glass nearly empty.

We have a responsibility to use our neighbors’ roadmaps to success.

But will the State have the courage to act?


*November 19th, 2014...UPDATE on Michigan groundwater requests from James Milne at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ):

Approximately 80% of the large quantity water withdrawal requests in Michigan were authorized in the first year of the program through the on-line Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool. After 5 years of the program (reporting year ending 7/8/2014), that percentage has dropped to approximately 60% of the requested large quantity water withdrawals were authorized by the Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool and the other 40% through site specific reviews by MDEQ.

After 5 years, MDEQ has denied a total of 14 site specific review requests for large quantity water withdrawals (< 1% of the total received). When a site specific review request is denied, the property owner has several options:

  • He/she can submit additional data with another site specific review request.
  • He/she can apply for a permit, possibly with measures to prevent an adverse resource impact, under Michigan’s statute, Part 327, Great Lakes Preservation, of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, 1994 PA 451, as amended.
  • The property owner can form a Water Users Group along with the other registered water users in the affected watershed(s) & local units of government to help manage their local water resources in a manner that provide water for the property owner while preventing adverse resource impacts. To date, a Water Users Group hasn’t been formed in Michigan.
  • The property owner can pursue civil litigation to protect his/her common law water rights or property rights.


Todd Ambs is the Director of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. For more than 35 years, Ambs has worked in the environmental policy field. From 2010 until becoming Director of Healing Our Waters in July, 2013, Ambs was President of the national conservation group River Network.

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