GOP puts business, not science, in control of state’s water

Todd Richmond, AP writer

Wisconsin’s expert environmental officials lack broad authority to regulate high-capacity wells, Attorney General Brad Schimel said this week in a formal opinion.

Schimel said, in effect, that business interests must trump any negative impacts on the state’s water supply in making decisions about high-capacity wells.

The attorney general’s opinion will dramatically reduce the Department of Natural Resources’ ability to oversee high-capacity wells, putting the state’s groundwater, lakes and streams at risk, conservationists predicted.

“It’s bad,” said Elizabeth Wheeler, senior attorney for Clean Wisconsin, which works to protect the state’s air and water. “It’s a huge step backward for groundwater protection compared to what we have now.”

The GOP and environmentalists have been quarreling for years over how much power the DNR has over high-capacity wells. The issue has grown more intense as more factory farms sink high-capacity wells to hydrate their herds and other farmers search for large-scale irrigation methods. Conservationists say the wells are depleting groundwater, lakes and streams, particularly in the state’s central sands region.

According to the DNR’s website, the agency currently reviews each high-capacity well application to see if the well, combined with other wells in that area, will adversely affect the state’s waters. If the agency determines the wells’ cumulative impact would be harmful, it can impose conditions on the well or deny the application.

A state appeals court ruled in 2010 that the DNR could take that approach, finding the agency has broad authority to regulate high-capacity wells and impose permit conditions. That decision prompted Republican legislators to pass a law in 2011 prohibiting agencies from imposing permit conditions that aren’t spelled out in statute.

The state Supreme Court upheld the appellate ruling later that same year, finding the DNR has general authority to police high-capacity wells. The high court didn’t consider the new law, because it didn’t become final until after oral arguments were complete.

Assembly Republicans have complained the DNR’s approach is too burdensome for businesses and has resulted in a backlog of applications. Looking to clear the path for applicants, they asked Schimel for a formal opinion in February on whether anything grants the DNR authority to go beyond its statutory powers.

Schimel, a Republican, wrote the responsibility for protecting the state’s waters lies with the Legislature, not the DNR. The Supreme Court didn’t consider the new law because it took effect after the justices handed down their decision, he said. Therefore, the new law takes precedence.

That means the DNR can’t impose well-monitoring conditions or consider the cumulative impact wells are having on an area’s water levels, the attorney general said.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who controls the DNR, is notorious for what environmentalists call his attacks on the state’s natural resources. He invariably prioritizes the needs of large corporations over conservation and environmental damage.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, issued a statement calling Schimel’s opinion “a victory for the people of Wisconsin.”

Louis Weisberg contributed to this report.