Bills of Note: High Capacity Wells

Sen. Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) introduced legislation (SB 76) in February that would change laws regulating the repair, replacement, reconstruction or transfer of high capacity wells. Rep. Gary Tauchen (R-Bonduel) introduced its counterpart AB 105 in the Assembly.

The bill would eliminate the need for the Department of Natural Resources to provide additional approval for an owner of an already approved high capacity well to repair, replace, reconstruct or transfer the well. Well owners would still have to notify DNR when they take any of these actions and would still be required to follow the conditions imposed by DNR in the initial approval of the well.

In a nine-hour hearing of the Senate Committee on Labor and Regulatory Reform and the Assembly Committee on Agriculture on March 15, lawmakers heard testimony on SB 76 and AB 105. A total of 166 citizens registered or spoke in favor of the bill. Growers and dairy farmers testified that the bill would provide certainty for them to continue running their businesses and to pass land down through generations of farmers. Supporters including the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association, Wisconsin Dairy Business Association and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce said the legislation would also allow farmers to quickly repair or replace wells so that economic impacts of damaged wells would be limited.

Environmentalists and homeowners criticized the bill that they said would allow high capacity wells to continue depleting groundwater and effectively end DNR’s ability to oversee the wells. Opponents of the bill, including Clean Wisconsin, argued that the bill would allow for “forever” wells eliminating any opportunity for DNR to re-evaluate the wells’ impacts. Opponents also criticized the legislature’s choice to put the legislation before the Labor and Regulatory Reform Committee, which they said was “naturally biased” toward the agriculture sector. In previous sessions, high capacity wells legislation has gone before the Senate’s Natural Resources Committee.

Clean Wisconsin is also separately challenging Attorney General Brad Schimel’s May 10, 2016 formal opinion finding that DNR lacks authority to require cumulative impact analysis as a condition to granting a well permit. On Jan. 6, eight business associations asked a Dane County court for permission to intervene in the ongoing litigation.

In a paper ballot vote on Tuesday, the Senate committee recommended the bill for passage, 3-2 along party lines. Sen. Majority Leader Fitzgerald said he is looking forward to debating the bill on the Senate floor next week.