The Portage County Board of Supervisors approved a resolution Tuesday, Dec. 17, asking the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to revise and develop new criteria to more completely evaluate the environmental impacts of high capacity wells.
The resolution was approved without discussion on a 22-2 vote, with supervisor Jerry Piesik, District 22, excused. The votes in opposition were from Dale O’Brien, District 19, and Barry Jacowski, District 23.
The Planning and Zoning Committee forwarded the resolution, which is similar to those already approved by the County Boards in Adams and Wood counties.
In a letter to the Board, Ray Schmidt, Portage County water quality specialist, said the Groundwater Citizens Advisory Committee voted 14-2 in favor of the resolution after conducting two meetings and considering the issue for more than a month.
Portage County is the No. 1 user of ground water in the state, Adams County is No. 2, Waushara County is No. 3 and Wood County is No. 22. Portage, Adams and Waushara comprise most of the central sands area, where irrigation from wells has helped the region become known as a globally significant vegetable and potato producing site.
The resolution asks that the DNR develop improved review criteria to promote responsible and sustainable water management by evaluating the environmental impacts of proposed high capacity wells, particularly the interaction with other existing wells and water resources in the area.
High capacity wells have generated concern, especially in the area, because of the impact on smaller wells, creeks, rivers and lakes.
The Little Plover River in Plover has had problems with water flow and the village of Plover officials and agricultural entities are working to reduce their effect on that flow.
In 2012 the city of Stevens Point put a new high capacity well into service northeast of the Stevens Point Municipal Airport and town of Hull residents in that area have been complaining they were having water problems, mainly declining water volumes in their homes, leading some to replace their wells with deeper ones.
A U.S. Geological Survey study estimated irrigation in Portage County accounted for 92.52 million gallons per day, with crop irrigation totaling 91.97 million gallons, meaning that other irrigation uses 0.10 percent per day.
There are about 3,600 irrigation high-capacity wells in the Central Sands region, with about one-third of them, 1,100, in Portage County. About 50 new wells were added in 2011 and 2012, with more added this year.
The average of stream flows and lake levels throughout Portage County are not as high as they used to be, and Two Lakes in the Almond area is down about four or five feet and Long Lake in the Hancock area in Waushara County is pretty dry.
Stoltenberg Creek west of Nelsonville and northwest of Lake Emily went dry in the summer of 2012, possibly because five high-capacity irrigation wells came into use in the area since 2007 to go along with the four that were already there.
Agricultural interests are addressing the issue also, only using irrigation rigs to supplement rainfall because the rigs are expensive to run, with one farmer reporting a cost of $10,000 a month during the summer for five wells on a smaller farm.
A monitoring well at Hancock Experimental Station in Waushara County, just south of the Portage County line, takes readings every 15 minutes and has been operating since 2000.
The former average level of ground water was about 10.5 feet higher than it is today, and the former lowest was recorded in 1959, but in 2006-07 the level went below that. Heavy rains occurred in 2010-11 and the levels came back up, but now they are low again.
The summer drop in ground water levels during the irrigation pumping is usually 10 to 20 percent, but the summer of 2012 was so dry that the level dropped an inch in two days in July when irrigation was in use before leveling off in September and October. The summer of 2012 was also one of those years that irrigation meant the difference for a healthy crop.
The resolution will also be sent to the governor, all Portage County members of the state Legislature and the Wisconsin Counties Association.