Legislators Put Squeeze on the Lifeline of Wisconsin Family Farmers with Groundwater Change

The Joint Finance Committee slipped a hastily crafted provision on groundwater into the budget that was intended to help farmers, but could end up doing the exact opposite.

With no public hearing, the Joint Finance Committee passed an amendment that would limit citizens’ ability to prevent neighboring water users from drawing down water supplies from nearby rivers, lakes and streams. The provision was designed to benefit one farm in particular: the proposed 4,500-cow Milksource Richfield Dairy in Adams County, whose neighbors have taken legal action to ensure that the dairy’s multiple high-capacity wells do not deplete other local wells and water resources.

Unlike most laws, which only operate looking forward, this budget provision would actually go back in time and throw out the citizens’ pending case against the dairy. Maybe in this instance it would be a victory for the farm. But farms are just as likely to find themselves on the other side of the coin when it comes to disputes about water.

Take, for example, the case of the Dale and Ardis Jorgenson dairy farm in Sparta, whose well went bone dry – and whose cows went thirsty – when a sand mine started operating a high-capacity well on the neighboring property. In an instance like that, a farm might well want to ask the DNR to step in and protect the farm’s water resources. This budget provision would foreclose that possibility.

Clearly, as the incidents in Richfield and Sparta demonstrate, farmers can easily find themselves on either side of the access to groundwater issue. To introduce legislation like this that pits farmers against their neighbors, and pits one farmer against another, is counterproductive. We need to have a conversation about our groundwater resources in this state, and we should do it the right way.

Legislators had already begun work on a groundwater bill when this measure got rushed into the budget, without a public hearing, testimony from groundwater experts, or even input from other legislators. We ask our neighbors to join us in urging state legislators to take this ill-advised provision out of the budget, and sit down at the table together – maybe over a nice tall glass of water – and come up with a better solution for protecting access to water resources for all.

Tom Quinn is the Executive Director of Wisconsin Farmers Union, a member-driven organization, is committed to enhancing the quality of life for family farmers, rural communities, and all people through educational opportunities, cooperative endeavors, and civic engagement.

Kerry Schumann is the Executive Director of Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to electing conservation leaders, holding decision makers accountable and encouraging lawmakers to champion conservation policies that effectively protect Wisconsin’s public health and natural resources.