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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Beautiful Beulah and WI's Supreme Court

With dysfunction, scandal, and even purported physical assaults being the focus of Wisconsin's Supreme Court these days, you might have missed a recent wise -- and extremely rare unanimous -- ruling by the Court on an important water issue.

The Supreme Court ruled, 7-0, last week that the Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources has the authority to regulate the pumping of groundwater if that pumping might affect surface waters nearby.

Here's the story: the village of East Troy, in Walworth County, wanted to install a new municipal well, not far from the shores of Lake Beulah. Lake property owners got nervous, and pushed DNR to determine whether taking hundreds of thousands of gallons from the groundwater and putting into the kitchen sinks and front lawns of East Troy residents might drain their lake.

The DNR determined no, it wouldn't, and besides, it's not their job to regulate how taking water from underground might affect water on the surface.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court determined that yes, indeed, the DNR DOES have the authority to regulate so-called "high capacity" wells, as long as scientific evidence could show harm.

This decision is huge for the lakes and rivers of this state. Up to now, the DNR has been unwilling to tell groundwater pumpers, like farmers and cities, to cool it on their pumping, even if they had evidence that pumping was draining dry a river. The most vivid case of this is the Little Plover River in Portage County, which has dried up in past summers. Scientists are certain that crop irrigation and heavy water use by the nearby village of Plover causes the Little Plover to dry up.

In the case of the Little Plover, the DNR set a minimum flow that the river is not supposed to go below before......well, we don't know what they'd do, because the agency has been reluctant to extend its authority to connecting groundwater pumping to surface water effects. They regulate the two separately, but the Supreme Court decision ought to give the agency a clear signal they can insist to parties drawing huge amounts of water out of the ground that they have to be conscious of the effects of that pumping on nearby lakes and streams.

Whether the DNR actually acts on this newly clarified legal authority is another matter. "Open for business" these days means "open to ignore environmental impacts." At least DNR can't hide behind lack of clear authority. The Wisconsin Supreme Court resoundingly gave it to them last week.

Don't look for much more unanimity for that gang, however. Maybe they need to spend time together on a river -- amazing what curative powers flowing waters have.

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