FOX 11 Investigates: Ground water debate in central Wisconsin

When you think of a water shortage, you usually don’t think of Wisconsin.

But in the last few years, some parts of our area are seeing dramatically lower lake levels.

Dan Trudell purchased a property on Huron Lake in Waushara County back in 1988. Back then, it was the perfect lakefront getaway.

“The water was such that the kids could swing high and jump and land in the water,” he said.

Today, he says the water is down about 10 feet.

“It is very disturbing that we continually see a decline in the water level,” Trudell said.

It’s not just property owners at one lake being affected. Some are concerned that lower lake levels could mean fewer tourists.

“We’re going to see a lot more of Wisconsin look like this,” said Professor George Kraft as he stood at what’s left of Long Lake in Waushara County.

Kraft says the once-thriving lake dried up completely in 2008.

Kraft, a groundwater expert from UW-Stevens Point, has been looking into the disappearing lakes in Central Wisconsin for more than a decade.

“Frankly, I was dubious,” he said. “I thought, ‘Well, it’s part of a normal cycle of ups and downs.'”

But that was then. After years of research, he says all of the signs kept pointing to one thing: high capacity wells used for irrigation.

“As hydrologists we know that whenever you pump ground water, water levels go down someplace,” Kraft said.

There’s plenty of pumping going on in the central part of the state.

The region, known as the Central Sands, is home to 2,034 high capacity irrigation wells. That’s nearly half of all the irrigation wells in the state.

According to the state, in 2013, more than 59 billion gallons of water was pumped out of the ground for irrigation in the Central Sands. That’s enough water to fill an Olympic size swimming pool more than 89,000.

Trudell is convinced the pumping is causing lakes like his to go down.

“When you pump this water out of the ground there isn’t a water fairy that’s down there that’s generating more water,” Trudell said.

But some people doing the pumping say it’s not that simple.

When asked what he thinks is causes issues with some of the lakes, farmer Nick Somers replied, “We go through cycles.”

Somers owns Plover River Farms, a third generation vegetable farm near Stevens Point. His 3,000 acre farm has 28 high capacity wells.

“We need to water,” he said. “If we didn’t have irrigation, I wouldn’t be around, vegetables wouldn’t be around.”

Somers says, thanks in large part to advances in technology, he uses less water today than he did 40 years ago.

“We are very scientific about our water use,” Somers said. “We don’t want to use any more than we have to.”

“Groundwater has been on our radar screen for decades,” said Duane Maatz from the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association. He says there are several issues at play, including evaporation and climate change.

“The big picture is that we don’t understand all of the things that are going on around us in nature,” Maatz said. “These are cycles. Does groundwater pumping have some impact on it? We think it’s minimal.”

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources doesn’t think so.

“We believe that irrigation wells are one of the main factors,” said Larry Lynch from the DNR. He says pumping is tied to lake levels.

“It’s clear that when you pump wells at that volume that you’re going to have an impact on surface waters,” Lynch said.

He says the only question is how much of an impact those other factors are having on lakes. The DNR is studying that issue. In the meantime, Lynch says the agency reviews every application it receives.

“We think we have the tools right now to adequately regulate high capacity wells as they’re proposed and if we feel a proposed well will cause significant impacts we’ll place conditions on it or we’ll deny the approval,” Lynch said.

The DNR puts restrictions on about one-third of new high capacity wells in the state.

Kraft isn’t surprised to see some question the science.

“This is pretty black and white,” Kraft said. “Scientists knew cigarette smoking caused cancer way back in the 60s but it was decades and millions of people died before we did something about it. I think we’re in the same kind of thing here with groundwater pumping.”

Somers says farmers aren’t in denial.

“We’re not closing our eyes to it,” he said. “We are concerned about it. We want to be around. We want all the generations to be around forever. If there has to be some changes made, we’re going to look at it and make it work.”

When asked what he would say to people who blame farmers for the issues, Somers replied, “Give us a year or two to figure this out.”

For home owners like Dan Trudell, time is running out.

“They continue to deny, delay and defer doing anything,” he said.

He wants to see the state put limits on the amount of ground water pumped each year.

“None of us want to put the farmers out of business. We eat food, also. But at some point there has to be a balance,” he said.

The DNR expects the two groundwater studies to be complete next year. Once they are completed, the information will be presented to the Legislature for possible action.

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