I have so many thoughts, emotions, and physical symptoms that defy description after yesterday’s passage of SB 76 through the assembly. I cannot figure out another way to process them, so I’m writing about it. Many of you are not involved in politics (I understand why), you don’t think this will personally affect you (I understand the detachment), or you just don’t have the time to worry and work on these types of issues (I probably don’t, either). However, I feel like I owe it to my community to explain what happened in real, understandable language, and share why I’m so out-of-sorts.
Spoiler alert: I’m understandably dissatisfied with the contents of the bill, I’m experienced in this issue, and the way that the Republican leadership changed the process of bill approval to cut out the involvement of citizens leaves me feeling worthless.
A little background:
I’ve been involved with groundwater issues for about five years. I was drafted into Trout Unlimited because of my artistic ability, but I was quickly educated on trout streams and their connection with groundwater. It was only a short hop, skip, and jump away to discover the unique groundwater challenges that we have here, living in the Central Sands of Wisconsin.
(Disclaimer: This is obviously my opinion, and I’m not representing any of the organizations that I’ve worked with on this issue)
The Central Sands area encompasses portions of Portage, Marathon, Wood, Waupaca, Waushara, Marquette, and Adams counties- including the Stevens Point area.
This area is defined by a sand and gravel aquifer that was left when glaciers melted at the end of the last ice age. This unique feature leads to regionalized groundwater challenges.
One of my largest concerns is the impact of pumping water through high capacity wells and the large number of wells that have been installed in this area. Over pumping of groundwater can lead to the draw down of surface water bodies- like lakes, rivers, and streams- among other environmental concerns. In this case, streams can run dry and lakes can lose depth or dry up completely.
Dry stream beds and shallow lakes cause challenges for the aquatic ecosystem and recreation, among others. Shallower water becomes warmer and stresses wild fish populations. Water can become too shallow to navigate in a kayak or fishing boat, limiting public access.
These types of issues spurred my initial involvement with politics, and groundwater is by far the area where I am the most politically active and involved. My election to the city council here was spurred by my interest that was initially started in groundwater management and protection through political means. It is fair and accurate to say that my interest and political involvement with groundwater has changed the course of my life.
With that being said, the process that SB 76 went through to be passed is criminal.
(I deleted the word criminal, and tried to find a different word to use… but I honestly can’t think of one. Shameful? Delete. Wrong? Delete. Dishonest? Obviously.)
Here is where you can find information and the full text of the bill: https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2017/proposals/reg/sen/bill/sb76 …
…but if you want me to give you a shorter recap, here it is. This bill deals with permitting for high capacity wells. A high capacity well is one (or a system) that is capable of pumping 70 or more gallons per minute. If you live in farming country, you often see these types of wells at the center point of the large irrigation systems in farm fields. The giant sprinklers rotate around the well.
Key points? This bill provides:
- No additional permit review is required for the owner of a high capacity well to repair or maintain a high capacity well, to construct a new replacement high capacity well within a 75 foot radius, to reconstruct a high capacity well at its same location and depth, -or- to transfer an existing high capacity well permit with the land upon which it is located.
- Direction for the creation of a new study area in the Central Sands, hoping for more information in the future.
What does that mean? SB 76 grants permits in perpetuity, forever. No other permits are like this- we need to renew our driver’s licenses, and work permits… it just makes sense to have a periodic review. They don’t give you your drivers’ license on your sixteenth birthday for perpetuity. They ask you to renew your license and require you to take a follow up vision test.
What will happen in ten or twenty years, when we have more hydrologic information and science that supports a different groundwater management plan? We won’t have an option to ask water users to change their current water use- at least not one that is efficient. We’ll have to go through this whole bill creation process again.
My friend, Henry, has a great analogy that he used while testifying against a version of this bill last year. I can’t remember his exact quote, but it essentially draws a connection between locking ourselves into permits granted with our current scientific knowledge- and opting to have surgery with the medical techniques used a couple decades ago. Why would you choose to make important current decisions with old science? That is the predicament we will be forced into in the future, with SB 76.
Since I’ve been teaching public speaking, I have well-rounded arguments at the forefront of my mind. In general, I usually try to understand all the counter-arguments, and fully wrap my head around an issue before I make a decision on it. In fact, it is part of what makes me agonize over my job as an alderwoman- I don’t just vote on the premise of something. I research and learn and ask lots of questions. In the sense of fairness, I asked a lot of questions about the other side. Here’s what I understand, so far.
I understand that farmers want certainty that if their well fails, they will be able to repair or replace it. It has been implied that farmers are tied up in this regulatory process, and that they have lost crops in times of drought- if their well(s) failed, they couldn’t replace their well without DNR approval, and they couldn’t wait for the process to provide the needed irrigation. However, the testimony at the March 15th hearing for this bill showed that agriculture and industry are able to get their well permits approved in a timely manner when they need to repair, replace, or transfer their well.
No one is trying to take away their wells.
We want to make sure that there will be enough water for everyone to use, now and in the future.
What happens when there is the inevitable problem with groundwater caused by a high capacity well (or 20)? Individual landowners can’t always afford to go to court, and if the problem is urgent… well, we all know that both government and law don’t move quickly. My heart breaks for all of the future people that will be impacted by this bill. One of the frustrating aspects of this bill, as I stated in my last testimony at the Capitol, is that it seems that some legislators are treating this as a future problem, instead of a current one. There are already problems with groundwater that are manifesting in surface water, so why would we pass a bill that does anything but try and solve the issue?
I feel like I own high capacity wells. As an alderwoman, our city manages wells to provide drinking water for our residents. Agriculture has the highest number of high capacity wells, but it isn’t the only use– we also have wells in Wisconsin for industrial and municipal use. With this being said, I understand the delicate balance of knowing when to pump and how much we can pump without adversely affecting our neighbors. Technology has really improved the amount of information available to us about when to pump and how much to use, and it makes efficient operation of wells, while quite sophisticated, definitely possible. If our municipal pump is on the outskirts of the city, and borders rural areas with residential wells, we need to make sure that we don’t adversely impact the other wells. We also protect our own wells, with wellhead protection areas. I’m not sticking my fingers in my ears and humming when I talk with pro-high capacity well folks. In fact, I think they’re important and necessary for the type of agriculture that is being enacted on here (whether or not large farms are the answer to our food problems is a different issue). However, we need a larger management plan, and we need to be able to change the limits on permits
if when we discover the extent of their detrimental impact to the watershed.
Of course, I’ve met with my legislators. Many times. Via email. At the Capitol. On the phone. Over lunch or coffee. If you’ve followed me on social media, you’ve seen my selfies with these legislators all over the place.
In fact, I’ve taken my current representative and our previous senator out to our local Tomorrow River, loaned them a spare pair of my waders, and hopped into the cold, clear trout stream. I explained exactly why this water means so much to me and why we work so tirelessly to protect it. We have a new senator now, and even though we disagree ideologically on almost everything, I think we have a good working relationship. His small amendment to the bill (the only amendment that passed) was introduced on the senate floor, and is almost like a super tiny step in the right direction- it expanded the area of future study. However, it’s not expanded to a large enough area- if we are all trying to really understand the craziness of our groundwater here. It is important to note that there is no identified funding for this study within this bill, so it could very well happen that the study isn’t funded and nothing happens. It doesn’t even feel like a real attempt at helping us- it feels like a multi-year stall tactic… and this, coming from your resident curly, science-loving friend, who tries to see the best in every situation. If the bill authors wanted to really help, they would include a fully funded, region-wide study.
All of this aside, my concern about the content of the bill, is completely overshadowed by the process that the legislature took to pass it.
The senate had their committee meeting on labor and regulatory reform on March 15th. Why did they choose to use the labor and regulatory reform committee, instead of the natural resources committee? Your guess is as good as mine. That’s the committee that I’ve spoken to in previous iterations of this bill. It was a long meeting with a nine hour public hearing- people from all over the state came to express their concern on both sides of the issue. It is obvious that groundwater is of high interest to many citizens.
I was looking forward to hearing the senators discuss and debate this topic, but the committee instead chose to cast their votes via paper ballot. No discussion. No amendments. I was disheartened.
It passed the Senate committee, and went to the full Senate. I watched the Senate floor on Wisconsin Eye and heard legislators discuss all the points of this bill. It was clear that many people had contacted their senators and expressed concern or support for the bill. Several senators referred to the long public hearing, and were amazed at the amount of public involvement in this legislative process. Of course, it passed the full Senate, along party lines.
The next step would typically include going to the assembly committee on agriculture. They should be the one to hold a hearing, and discuss this bill publicly. The assembly should be voting on SB 76’s partner bill, AB 105, but Assembly Speaker Vos decided to skip the last step in the committee process and have the full assembly vote on SB 76. Disheartened doesn’t even begin to explain how this makes me feel. Why wouldn’t the Assembly want to have an executive committee discussion about this bill when the public has clearly demonstrated their interest in the contents of the legislation? Whether you agree with the bill or not, I truly believe that we deserved a chance to talk to the assembly committee face-to-face and our elected representatives deserved a chance to discuss the merits and create amendments, if necessary.
I don’t get paid to do this work. I didn’t go to school to study political science or policy. I just care about it. I’ve done research. I’ve talked to people who know more than I do, and I try to keep up.
Just like I work for my constituents in the city, these legislators work for me. To have the Republican leadership slap citizens in the face like this flies in the face of everything I believe as an active, fairness-striving, people-loving woman. It’s wrong, it feels personal, and no one seems to know about it. Now you do, and my stress-induced stomachache is easing a little. Thank you so much for sticking with me through this short novel.
You can see how it was literally impossible for me to work on my grad school research, even though the final research papers are due next week. I was over the moon excited on Monday about receiving the results of my first study indicating attitude change using visual communication about this very subject (groundwater use in the Central Sands). It’s hard for me to feel like this work matters anymore. Why bother trying to change attitudes and educate the public when our elected officials don’t listen to our concerns? Please tell me this line of research and all my work in grad school isn’t for naught.
So what is the message here? What are Senate and Assembly Republicans trying to tell me?
I hear it, loud and clear.
I don’t matter. My friends don’t matter. Our scientists don’t matter.
The landowners with real concerns? They don’t matter. Their financial problems as their property values have gone down? Not the problem of their elected officials.
All the time that I spent learning, studying, and researching groundwater? Unimportant. It’s better to run your mouth about something you don’t know about than to waste time learning and try to make an informed argument. You don’t want to hear from me, anyway.
Every day that I took time off work and drove down to Madison to meet with legislators? It doesn’t matter. Those lost wages? Unimportant.
The meetings with other concerned citizens? A waste of time. Our sign on letters of concern with hundreds of land owners? Probably went straight to your recycle bin.
All of the phone calls and emails that I made? Not even noted. Not even a blip on your radar. Your staff is kind, but they probably didn’t even pass on the message. That’s easier for me to swallow than to think that you Literally. Don’t. Care.
And you know what? I’m PISSED about it.