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On a pleasant evening in July, Portage County Executive Patty Dreier entered the county board’s wood-paneled chambers in downtown Stevens Point. By law, Dreier is required to deliver an annual state-of-the-county address, and in previous years, she had stuck to a formulaic recitation of needs and accomplishments. Tonight, however, she was going single-issue, determined to […]

On a pleasant evening in July, Portage County Executive Patty Dreier entered the county board’s wood-paneled chambers in downtown Stevens Point. By law, Dreier is required to deliver an annual state-of-the-county address, and in previous years, she had stuck to a formulaic recitation of needs and accomplishments. Tonight, however, she was going single-issue, determined to ignite a conversation about groundwater, one of the region’s deepest conflicts.

“Without a healthy aquifer, Portage County would be an environmental and economic desert,” she argued. “Why aren’t we doing more to ensure its vital future?”

Groundwater has long been a political beach ball in the Central Sands, the eight-county agricultural heartland that stretches roughly from Wausau to Portage. A hard land to farm until the advent of modern irrigation, in just 50 years, the area’s bounty has helped Wisconsin become the second-largest producer of processed vegetables in the country.

The Wisconsin River is the region’s aquatic backbone, but there are also more than 300 lakes and 800 miles of trout streams, all fed by groundwater. It’s not an ancient reservoir, locked under hundreds of feet of stone. The water is continually replenished by rain; the sands store and filter it.

High-capacity wells are those capable of drawing more than 100,000 gallons a day – what an average home uses in a year. In 1950, there were fewer than 100 such wells in the Central Sands; now, there are more than 3,000. The map resembles a pincushion, and there is still more demand.

But for more than a decade, public concern has been mounting over declining lake and stream levels. Dreier had been aware of the issue before she took office, but a Yosemite vacation in June finally set her resolve. As she drove across the drought-riven San Joaquin Valley in central California, she was struck by its similarly sandy soil and history of vanishing lakes.

The parallels disturbed her. Could this happen in Wisconsin?

“We cannot wait,” she told the Portage County Board on that summer night. “This ‘free-for-all’ on water has got to stop. We need thoughtful management across all sectors. Let us let go of ‘my science is bigger or better than your science’ and get on with the business of stewardship. We know enough about groundwater right this minute – even just those of us in this room – to begin making some sensible choices that protect our future.”

Her challenge echoes across the state. Wisconsin’s groundwater law was last changed in 2004. That revision was partially spurred by the Great Lakes Compact, then under negotiation by the eight Great Lakes states. As Wisconsin joined this conscious effort to protect a world-class water resource, policymakers realized how antiquated state law was: Not only did Wisconsin not monitor high-capacity well withdrawals, it didn’t even know which wells on its books were still active.

Bipartisan consensus recognized more refinement was needed to modernize groundwater management, but efforts led by Democrats in 2010 and Republicans in 2014 died end-of-session deaths. And in this legislative void, a 2011 state Supreme Court ruling set stricter parameters for permitting high-capacity wells.

Conservationists applauded the court for recognizing the link between groundwater and surface water. Business interests decried the new regulatory burden, and now want legislation to override the court. The division keeps lawyers and lobbyists busy, but pressure on the resource is forcing the issue. Rising farm commodity prices, the increasing capital requirements needed for modern agriculture and the emergence of frac sand mining have all accelerated the high demand for groundwater. Since the eye-opening drought of 2012, permit applications for high-capacity wells have risen dramatically.

The urgency is now palpable in the Central Sands. In 2012, Stevens Point opened a major new high-capacity municipal well pulling 5 million gallons a day; dozens of nearby household wells in the adjacent town of Hull subsequently went dry, and the town is threatening legal action.

A few miles away, people in Dreier’s own subdivision are nervous about a new high-capacity well proposed for a neighboring field.

There was hope that the wet, lingering spring would offer a season of reprieve and recharge, but just weeks after Dreier’s impassioned state-of-the-county sermon, the Little Plover River, a small trout stream that flows through Stevens Point, diminished to a trickle. It’s been a nearly annual occurrence since 2005. In 2013, this canary of the Central Sands was named one of the nation’s 10 most-endangered rivers by the advocacy group American Rivers.

It may still be possible to save the Little Plover River. Growers may need to adjust to a new era of limits. Environmentalists may need to accept the loss of a few sensitive areas. Politicians will need to bridge divisions among their constituents. Science is never perfect, and eventually, arguments must give way to actions that reflect community consensus.

Managing a resource nobody can see but everybody needs is complicated already, requiring trust in both people and science. Can Wisconsin pull that off at a time of historic partisan rancor? The challenge doesn’t get easier as scarcity looms.

“We’re on the edge of greater conflict, pitting water users against water users,” warns Dreier. “That’s not a pretty scenario.”

 

Little Plover River

In 1963, the United States Geological Survey made a 33-minute film showcasing research about the Little Plover River. It’s a thoroughly analog time capsule, replete with slide rulers and men in wool hunting caps. Martial music worthy of a D-Day newsreel plays as the men work their pumps and pipes.

Shot before spring greening, the surging waters of the river reflect golden hues of sun, sand and dried vegetation. Step into this enchanted river five decades later, and your toes still grip glacial sand. Here, the ancient Wisconsin River, dammed by a great ice wall, paused its rush to the sea. As the river slowed, it dropped great loads of gravel and sand on the bottom of Glacial Lake Wisconsin. The dam broke, and the lake bottom became a giant sandbox – the Central Sands.

Water can – and will – permeate all kinds of soil and rock formations. It flows through cracks in bedrock and even through some solid rocks like sandstone. It’s held up by clays and denser rock, such as granite. Sand is a fabulous conduit for groundwater and can store a prodigious quantity of it. In the Central Sands, the average depth to bedrock is 100 feet.

Lakes and streams – such as the Little Plover River – arise at the very top of the water table. Take enough water from the sandbox, and the waterways vanish like beer spilled on the beach.

The USGS film demonstrates this with a dramatic experiment. A powerful well placed close to the Little Plover begins pumping, sending more than 1,000 gallons a minute far from the river. Within 20 minutes, the stream’s flow drops. Turn the well off, and the flow quickly returns. “It is essential that we learn to manage our water resources,” says the narrator of the 1963 film, “so that supplies of pure water will be available to support the activities of future generations.

The Little Plover has been under almost continuous study since the film crew left. “This river is all groundwater-fed, no tributaries. That’s why it’s so studied,” says Barb Gifford of the Friends of the Little Plover River. But knowledge has not translated into wise management. A 1971 report looked at how irrigation and the region’s 300 wells affected stream flow. Two USGS hydrogeologists concluded that pumping from those wells decreased stream flow by 25-30 percent in an average year, but worried it could drop by 70-90 percent during severe drought. In 1996, after the village of Plover added a new municipal well, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point scientists modeled the pumping, and projected that the Little Plover River would run dry when the well reached full capacity in 2005. And so the river did.

The prediction required no crystal ball, just simple addition and subtraction. “All the water comes from somewhere,” says hydrogeologist Ken Bradbury, who first saw the Little Plover movie as a new doctoral student in the late 1970s. “If you’re using it here, it’s not going over there, and that’s neither good nor bad – it’s just a fact.”

Watching the movie again from his digs at the Wisconsin Geological & Natural History Survey, Bradbury reflects on his latest project – creating a state-of-the-art groundwater flow model of the Little Plover River. “In a way, it seems a little foolish, because it’s all been done,” he concedes. Still, the $200,000 collaboration with USGS – commissioned by the DNR and partially funded by the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association – could be the great leap forward in groundwater management that the Central Sands needs.

“It’s my obligation to try again,” Bradbury says. “And maybe communicate a bit better, because obviously the problem is not solved. People are still arguing about this stuff.

“You hear people say, ‘Oh well, the science isn’t all done yet,’ or ‘There is still a lot of uncertainty,’” he says. “But the bedrock principles are not uncertain at all. They are very well-established.” Using ground-penetrating radar, electrical resistivity imaging and a passive seismic device, Bradbury’s project will create the most detailed map yet of the bedrock below the basin. Paired with comprehensive well and pumping data, Bradbury will use a computer model to simulate groundwater flow at a level of detail unimaginable in 1963.

And here is something they couldn’t do 50 years ago: optimize water use. Typically, an agricultural well is simply dropped in the middle of a field, but there may be better locations that could minimize the impact on the river. Depth, operating schedule, location – a detailed model could inform all of those decisions.

Optimization could help provide maximum business, recreation and ecological returns for the available water. And if it works for the Little Plover River, it could be extended with minimal modifications to the rest of the Central Sands. “I know we can sustain the agriculture we have now,” Bradbury says. “All it takes is a little tweaking, and we can still have our rivers.”

 Source: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, 2013 Water Withdrawal Reporting

 

Lake Beulah

Nestled in Kettle Moraine country just south of Mukwonago, Lake Beulah is barely a drop in the aquatic bounty of Wisconsin. Its 812 sparkling acres are an infinitesimal fraction of the more than 1 quadrillion gallons of groundwater in our four major aquifers. Nevermind 15,000 lakes, 32,000 miles of rivers and streams, and more than 5 million acres of wetlands, most of which is bordered by two of the world’s 10 largest lakes and one of its mightiest rivers.

Despite its small size, Lake Beulah has become a legal metric in the battle over water rights and high-capacity wells. In 2003, the village of East Troy petitioned the DNR to construct a new municipal well 1,200 feet from the shore of Lake Beulah. Permitting for high-capacity wells begins at 100,000 gallons a day. Scheduled to pump 1.4 million gallons per day, Beulah’s Well No. 7 was significantly larger, but still under the 2 million gallon threshold of the state’s most scrutinized wells.

After the permit was granted, the Lake Beulah Management District (a quasi-governmental authority) and the Lake Beulah Protective and Improvement Association (an environmental organization founded in 1894) unsuccessfully challenged the approval. They argued that Well No. 7 would damage the navigable surface waters of Lake Beulah and nearby wetlands. Pumping began in 2008, and the legal battle continued. But in 2011, the state Supreme Court ultimately ruled against the DNR.

The court’s unanimous decision builds on a long history of public water rights enshrined in the state constitution, approved by referendum in the spring of 1848. As the founders decreed: “[T]he river Mississippi and the navigable waters leading into the Mississippi and St. Lawrence, and the carrying places between the same, shall be common highways and forever free.”

This emphasis on navigable waters is what has stalled approval of the Couture high-rise apartment on the site of a Downtown Milwaukee transit center along Lincoln Memorial Drive. The group Preserve Our Parks claims a map drawn in the 1880s shows the majority of the site was once in Lake Michigan waters, and the center was built on lake fill.

Although travel on lakes and rivers has declined in economic importance, for more than a century, the court has continued to think dynamically about what’s known as the “public trust doctrine” – the management of the various public benefits of water.

In 1898, the court first recognized the rights of the public to fish in navigable waters, and in 1914, it added hunting. Scenic value was acknowledged in 1952. “‘[P]ublic trust’ duty requires the state not only to promote navigation but also to protect and preserve its waters for fishing, hunting, recreation and scenic beauty,” the court reaffirmed in 1978. “The state’s responsibility in the area has long been acknowledged.”

In the Lake Beulah case, the conservancies and their allies argued that because surface water is inexorably linked to groundwater, public trust doctrine must extend to groundwater regulation. In broad language, the court agreed that the DNR, as guardian of the public trust, “has the authority and a general duty to consider potential environmental harm to waters of the state when reviewing a high-capacity well permit application.”

While conservationists hailed the decision, some industries have decried the regulatory uncertainty left in its wake. In 2012, legal counsel for the Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association submitted a 15-page legal memorandum to the DNR. Among other issues, it complained about restrictions on pumping capacity, previously rare, now being placed on some permits. “We are concerned that WDNR staff is not providing sufficient concrete scientific evidence for restrictions,” the memo said.

In 2013, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce – the state’s chamber of commerce – amplified the growers’ concern, noting that “activist environmental groups have used the court decision to challenge permits needed for expansions in the dairy industry.” WMC warned that this kind of lawsuit could “block future economic development projects in our state.”

“Lake Beulah created an awful lot of uncertainty for us,” added former WPVGA executive director Duane Maatz recently. “I think we need to repair what was done.”

 

Heartland

Driving north on Interstate 39, you can’t miss the waterwheels that carve massive circles throughout the Central Sands. Modern center-pivot irrigation technology first appeared after World War II, boosted by wartime advances in aluminum manufacturing. Commercial agriculture would be difficult here without irrigation – the sandy soil can’t hold water long enough for crops to reliably thrive on rainwater alone. The rigs run regularly during the growing season, transforming the water into a substantial slice of the nation’s supply of sweet corn, peas and potatoes. In 2013, Portage County led the state in groundwater pumping – 27 billion gallons, primarily for crop irrigation. Nearby Adams and Waushara county ranked third and fourth, respectively.

Before you fixate on that 27 billion number, Jeremie Pavelski has some calculations to add: With 823 square miles and an average annual rainfall of 32 inches, Portage County receives 498 billion gallons of water from the sky. Less than 6 percent of total precipitation is pumped.

Sometimes Pavelski, a fifth-generation potato farmer and now president of Heartland Farms, hears people talking about water shortages in the Central Sands as if the area will soon run dry. “That’s not even close to being the case,” he says. Although some areas are more sensitive, we’re not draining the whole aquifer – as is being done in Kansas and California. “You’re looking at the couple feet of fluctuation.”

Heartland Farms is a sprawling enterprise, a two-family operation that employs nearly 100 people and spans 15,000 acres. In a given year, one-third of this area grows potatoes, while the rest produces sweet corn, peas and beans. As one of the largest growers in the state, Pavelski knows that a time of reckoning is upon his region and his industry. He’s active in water forums and chairs the WPVGA water task force.

And if there is one thing that farmers can’t stand, it’s the presumption that their water use is unthinking and willy-nilly. If you’ve been paying attention over the years on that drive up I-39, you may have noticed that where water used to fountain and cascade, most irrigation rigs now sprinkle their water from below. This new low-pressure system uses less electricity and water.

“We don’t want to apply too much water and we don’t want to apply too little,” explains Pavelski. Both drought and overwatering decrease yields.

But plants still need a lot of water, so more refinements are coming, thanks to a federal grant partnering the WPVGA with the University Extension and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Scientists have been fine-tuning remote soil moisture probes, precisely mapping soil types and designing software to optimize water delivery. These techniques can micromanage the amount of water delivered not just to each field, but even to subsections of the field. This summer, research is focused on further identifying the precise moisture needs of different crop types. Other experiments are focused on deficit irrigation – exploiting how some plants actually root better and deeper with periodic dry cycles.

Incremental advances like these enhance sustainability over periods of decades, argues Maatz, the former WPVGA director. For example, state farmers now grow the same amount of potatoes as in 1996, but on 28 percent less land. “We’ve changed farming practices significantly and will continue to,” says Maatz, who left the association in August. “Best practices related to economics will make changes immediately on every farm.”

Their research wish list includes a closer look at rainfall recharge – at the billions of gallons Pavelski calculates. Climate change means earlier spring storms and more large rain events – huge payloads of water that rush to the river without stopping. Could they slow that water down? Top up the aquifer a little more?

“My house is on a little stream in Wisconsin Rapids, and I sure don’t want to see that dry up,” Pavelski says, sympathetically. It might be easy to dismiss that as an easy platitude but for the fact that just a few years ago, Heartland walked away from a potential 6,000-acre expansion south of Wisconsin Rapids when community opposition in the town of Saratoga took root. “We’re not going to be your neighbors if you don’t want us to be your neighbors,” he told the press at the time.

Now, the same property is ground zero for the proposed Golden Sands Dairy, which would include 49 high-capacity wells and a milking herd of more than 6,000. Large animal operations represent a different kind of groundwater stress – at least some wells would operate year-round. In late August, Republican state Rep. Scott Krug asked the DNR to deny the Golden Sands permits. (Aside from groundwater quantity issues, groundwater pollution is also a major issue in the Sands, both from agricultural chemicals and nitrate pollution from animal waste.)

Pavelski won’t comment on the concentrated animal feeding operations question. But he will say that he is confident there is enough water to sustain expansion. “We definitely want to invest in agriculture,” he says. “I want to work with the communities and find the right places.”

 

Lake Beulah Redux

Nowhere in the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s Lake Beulah decision does the phrase “cumulative impacts” appear, but that’s what everyone is arguing about today. The idea is simple enough: two straws will empty a glass faster than one. Wisconsin’s first high-capacity wells for agriculture appeared in the Central Sands, and they continue to proliferate. And while there may be plenty of water in the sand, the cumulative impact of all the wells appears to leave less water for lakes and rivers.

In theory, the Lake Beulah ruling gave the DNR authority to look at these cumulative impacts. Its legal course has been to split the difference, evaluating cumulative impacts only when a well application is on the property of another high-capacity well.

The distinction may make political and legal sense, but it does not match hydrogeological reality: The impact of groundwater pumping has nothing to do with who owns the pump. “There is always an impact. You can’t get away from that,” says hydrogeologist Bradbury. “There seems to be an attitude that we can take water and not affect anything, and that’s just impossible.”

A December 2013 cross-examination of Eric Ebersberger, chief of the DNR’s water use section, by environmental lawyer Carl Sinderbrand captures the contradiction, which Ebersberger also called a “gap in public trust enforcement.”

Sinderbrand: “If, hypothetically, you have 10 applications pending at the same time, all of which are going to contribute a 2-inch permanent drawdown to a water line, is it DNR’s position that you would have to look at each – and they are all on separate properties … independent of and without considering the effect of the other nine?”

Ebersberger: “Yes.”

Sinderbrand: “That effectively could be – to use a vernacular – a death of 1,000 cuts to a water body, right?”

Ebersberger: “Yeah. Hypothetically that approach could adversely affect the water.”

Sinderbrand had represented the DNR during the Lake Beulah case. Now, he was trying to reverse pumping rates approved by the DNR for Richfield Dairy, another large-animal feeding operation in Adams County near Pleasant Lake, several trout streams and some rare wetland areas. The DNR had approved the well because the projected withdrawals alone would not cause significant harm. Those fighting the well argued that these waters had already been damaged by existing pumping rates.

The case is particularly important because, in the 2013 budget bill, legislators introduced a last-minute amendment that restricted the right of citizens to use “cumulative impacts” to challenge well permits. In the absence of further legislation or litigation, the decision could set precedent for the foreseeable future.

“We are not the masters of our own destiny,” says DNR division administrator Russ Rasmussen. “We have to wait for court decisions; we have to see if any legislation comes out.”

On Sept. 3, 2014, Administrative Law Judge Jeffrey D. Boldt essentially split the proverbial baby. On the one hand, he approved Richfield Dairy’s original well permit. But he struck down the dairy’s request for a nearly 50 percent increase in allowable pumping.

And he left no doubt about the realities of cumulative impacts: “Significantly, no water resources expert testified that one could properly consider the concrete scientific evidence relating to the water cycle without considering cumulative impacts. Rather, many testified that basic science required it. The DNR’s own experts concluded that they could not properly consider the ‘environmental impact’ of the well in a way that is consistent with sound water resources science without considering cumulative impacts.”

 

Krug’s Dilemma

In the fall of 2013, then-state Sen. Neal Kedzie, a Waukesha Republican, introduced Senate Bill 302, a revision to the state’s approval process for high-capacity wells. Kedzie was a sponsor of the bipartisan groundwater bill that became law in 2004. But he was on a different tack now: He wanted to “fix” the Lake Beulah standard, and did so by following the rough template set out by the WPVGA memo.

As it was first introduced, the bill would have restricted DNR’s ability to evaluate cumulative impacts. It also would have allowed property owners to pass along well permits to the new owners when they sold the land. Denny Caneff of the River Alliance says it would have derailed years of work. “It was a torpedo at our effort to bring some kind of management scheme to groundwater use in the Central Sands.”

Kedzie knew he had the support of the business community and that he had excited the animus of environmental advocates.

But Kedzie did not anticipate the reaction of Scott Krug, a fellow Republican from Wisconsin Rapids. Krug was elected to the Legislature in 2010. Redistricting then gave him a chunk of western Waushara County. As he got to know his new constituents, he heard grumblings about groundwater.

Krug’s epiphany came on the shores of Marl Lake, where he saw a series of additions to a boat ramp chasing the receding water. “You could stand at the bottom of that third boat ramp and look up to the top of the bowl where the water used to be,” he recalls. “Probably 4 feet of water had vanished, disappeared, for whatever reason.”

Alongside the anecdotal stories of shrinking lakes and faltering streams, evidence of a systemic problem was mounting. Researchers combing through scattered local data found 13 lakes with good enough records that they could document a downward trend, losses between 1.6 and 3.6 feet over roughly 40 years.

Krug also learned that straight dialog on the topic would bring out the political wolves. “It’s a very touchy issue,” he says. “You lose a lot of friends on both sides when you start to apply science.” He convened a broad citizen advisory board, encompassing both growers and groundwater activists, and they began meeting every other week, for hours at a time.

When SB302 hit Madison, he knew it wasn’t right. He approached Kedzie with amendments, and was rebuffed. “I tried to discuss it with him, and it didn’t go anywhere,” Krug says. “It was really contentious. I was accused of not being a Republican a few times.”

Krug dug in. It helped that Kedzie’s bill had essentially redefined the well permit as a property right. Water rights as property rights struck an uncomfortable – and potentially unconstitutional – nerve for legislators. Kedzie attempted a rescue with his own amendments, but Krug’s defiance carried the day. “I spent almost all my political capital stopping that bill,” he says.

For his efforts, Krug earned a spot on the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters’ honor roll. Then the story gets twisted. While he was lauded by water advocates for his willingness to cross the aisle, Democrats saw his district as a pawn on a larger board.

“What an awkward, frustrating position,” says Anne Sayers, program director at the League, which has since bestowed its coveted endorsement for the fall election. “It’s become clear that he understands that groundwater is the most important issue in his district. He’s made it a priority in his district to be listening to all sides of the issue, and to do the hard work of figuring out a solution that works for everybody.”

Sayers longs for the days of bipartisan stewardship, when conservation leadership was part of Wisconsin’s political identity. The legacy started to unravel in the closing days of Gov. Jim Doyle’s administration. A long effort to dampen political influence and allow science to guide natural resource policy had culminated in a bill to create an independent DNR secretary. The bill had a long co-sponsorship list, and Doyle had even campaigned on it.

Then he vetoed it.  And natural resource issues have aligned along the bitter chasm separating the parties ever since.

“The Democrats definitely share blame,” says Sayers. It’s her hope that water, which knows no boundaries, can offer a way out. “Whatever your political party, you wake up every morning and you have to breathe the air and you have to drink the water,” she says.

Change is coming. In a July interview with the Wheeler Report, state Sen. Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) promised that groundwater will be on the agenda in the next session. If a bill moves before findings from the promising Little Plover River study are available, it could be a sign that the science, once again, is getting shorted.

Meanwhile, Kedzie abruptly resigned in June. Will another Republican emerge to champion deregulation, or will Krug’s promise of moderation get the nod? And while Krug says he has gained the ear of his party, has he gained the trust of voters?

 

Which way out?

In 1924, when Stevens Point switched its water supply from increasingly polluted river water to groundwater, it christened itself “The City of Wonderful Water.” Believe the hype. As recently as 2010, the city won the nation’s top honors for tap water taste from the American Water Works Association.

Wisconsin has long had the luxury of complacency where groundwater is concerned; it seemed we could always sink another well. That backfired, first in Waukesha, when deep drawdowns of its aquifer in recent years led to radium contamination in its drinking water. Now, the Central Sands must contend with the consequences of its own excesses. The convergence of forces suggests more problems down the line.

Michigan and Minnesota have similar cultures and groundwater resources, yet both have a more evolved system to manage groundwater than Wisconsin does. Minnesota’s has emerged incrementally, over decades, under largely Democratic influence. Michigan’s system was built in the last decade, spurred by its obligations under the Great Lakes Compact, and overseen largely by Republicans.

Michigan’s system may be easier to reproduce here. Its public face is a computer model very similar to the system Ken Bradbury is constructing for the Little Plover River. If a landowner wants to drill a well, he can locate his parcel and drill an imaginary well. The model then evaluates whether the planned withdrawal might harm fish populations in nearby rivers. If no harm is foreseen, most applicants are already well on their way to being approved.

The tool is what makes the regulatory process possible, says Jon W. Allan, who heads Michigan’s Office of Great Lakes. The vast majority of users are going to fly through, alleviating the fear of unreasonable bureaucracy. But it’s more than a computer model. Underpinning the tool is the trust that stakeholders built over seven years of intense bipartisan discourse.

Allan led his state’s discussion, co-chairing a commission chosen in equal parts by both houses of the Michigan Legislature and by the governor. The commission’s work required long hours of study, public process and transparency. “You have to build trust on the political side that the science is good. And you have to build trust that the politics will follow,” says Allan.

Political trust seems far more precious than water these days, but there is strong precedent for cooperation. The 2004 groundwater law that laid the foundation for modernizing groundwater management in Wisconsin was passed in both houses by near-unanimous consent. And despite rising partisan intensity, it’s hard to imagine that our political sensibilities around such a basic necessity have changed so dramatically.

“I want to find something that can work for a generation,” Krug says. “And the only way to do that is to find broad consensus across the aisle, drive the discussion back to the center again.”

Krug and anyone who cares to join him have their work cut out. In long hours of interviews for this story, there was almost always a point where the conversation stalled unless it went off the record. Although most people agreed that the state needs to reach a point where discussions take place about real tradeoffs – for example, the possibility that a lake might be sacrificed on the way to getting more comprehensive management from Central Sands farmers – getting to that conversation seemed just beyond reach.

But it’s coming. For years, the conversation has been dominated by special interests – the growers and the greenies. But across the Central Sands, more and more people are paying attention. New activist groups are forcing the conversation.

“We would be nowhere if it were just the usual environmental groups moaning about this,” says the River Alliance’s Caneff. “It is the citizens … who have been really impressive. They are up against big odds. They have been adamant that we stop playing defense.”

Equally important, growers are engaging. It’s a small example, but three farmers along the Little Plover River have synchronized their crop rotations so that in any year, only one of them is growing thirsty potatoes. “The ag guys understand they are part of the problem, but not all of it,” Krug says. “And they want to be able to participate in part of the solution, but not all of it.”

Adds Pavelski, president of Heartland Farms: “I don’t think the agricultural community can ever say that there is no impact. No matter what the impact, large or small, you are making a temporal change in the way that the water is flowing.”

Pavelski has faith that, between existing and forthcoming technology, the state can get through these issues. It’s the human factor that’s the crux. “We’ve got to get rid of all politics involved here.”

It won’t always be easy. Portage County Executive Patty Dreier has been accused of scare tactics for comparing the area to California. She’s sorry she struck a nerve, and has been working to expand her knowledge of the growers’ efforts.

But so far, she says, feedback has been positive, and she’s charging ahead with plans for six months of listening sessions. Special interests have been debating for years, but she says the real difference now is the concern being voiced by average citizens: “This is their own ability to turn on tap water at home.”

And as Dreier told her county, they have the knowledge to solve the problem. Now, they need the will.

“We can pretend there is no problem, or there is no problem on the horizon, or that it is just ‘a cycle.’ But that is irresponsible,” she says. “This isn’t about pointing fingers. This is about doing the right thing at the right time. And the right time is now.”

Write to freelancer Erik Ness at letters@milwaukeemag.com.

‘Till the Well Runs Dry’ appears in the November, 2014, issue of Milwaukee Magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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