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MADISON — Wisconsin’s big water users would have an easier time getting permits to drill high-capacity wells under legislation Republicans have tucked into Gov. Scott Walker’s budget.

The language would block anyone from challenging high-capacity well applications and permits by arguing the state Department of Natural Resources didn’t consider the cumulative impact of the well and surrounding wells on the environment.

High-capacity wells have long been a contentious issue in Wisconsin. They’ve come to the forefront again in recent years as industries that use vast amounts of water such as sand mining and factory farms have taken hold.

Republican leaders say the budget provision simply reinforces the DNR’s position that it has no power to take the effect of multiple wells into account when approving applications. Democrats and environmentalists, though, say the prohibition would strip citizens of a way to force the DNR to consider the big picture of multiple wells depleting groundwater, lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands.

“This is a huge gift to the frack sand mining industry, open-pit mining companies, and factory farms. For the rest of us who depend on fresh, plentiful water for our homes, communities and businesses, it’s a slap in the face,” Anne Sayers, program director for the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, said in a statement.

One project that stands to be affected is in Adams County, where conservationists and family farm supporters have sought to block a proposed factory dairy farm.

Plans for the Richfield Dairy call for an initial herd of 6,200 cows and two high-capacity wells. The DNR has approved a well permit application setting the two wells’ annual pumping limit at 72.5 million gallons, equivalent to the water a community of roughly 1,000 people use in a year, according to the DNR. The agency approved the application without considering the cumulative effects of the wells and other wells in the area.

Opponents including Friends of the Central Sands and the Pleasant Lake Management District have challenged the dairy’s plans before an administrative law judge. One of their key arguments is the DNR has a duty to consider cumulative well impacts in its role as custodian of Wisconsin’s waters and can’t ignore the total effects of individual wells on the environment.

DNR attorneys say state law doesn’t give the agency the authority to consider cumulative effects of multiple wells located outside a single property.

“Petitioners may well argue that we have now reached the point where water conditions for parts of the State are at a critical point, such that apportionment of groundwater is necessary. However, it is not for an administrative agency to make and implement such a determination,” DNR attorney Judith Mills Ohm wrote in a filing last month. “DNR is bound to follow the existing law regarding groundwater withdrawals.”

The Legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee was finishing up a long day of revisions to Walker’s budget on May 21 when Rep. Dan LeMahieu, R-Cascade, introduced a motion that would forbid challenging high-capacity well permits on the grounds the DNR didn’t consider the cumulative impacts of the well and surrounding wells in the watershed.

The prohibition would apply to any high-capacity well permit in effect before, on or after the day the budget takes effect, which means it would essentially wipe out the Pleasant Lake Management District’s arguments.

None of the 12 Republicans on the committee spoke about the proposal. The panel voted 12-4 along party lines to add the language to the budget as minority Democrats shook their heads.

Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine, a member of the finance committee, called the prohibition a “massive overreach.”

“I don’t think the members even knew what they were voting on,” Mason said. “The changes aren’t going to affect one contested case hearing. It’s going to affect the entire state. Citizens have no recourse to ask regulators to determine … the cumulative effect of these essentially large straws in the ground. It’s just really bad. Bad policy and bad process.”

LeMahieu didn’t return a message seeking comment. His office referred questions to Kit Beyer, a spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Burlington. Beyer said in a telephone interview that LeMahieu’s proposal simply codifies the DNR’s position and ensures no one can sue them over it.

“It’s a legal reform,” Beyer said.

Bill Harke, a spokesman for Milk Source Holdings, which has proposed the Richfield Dairy, said he was aware of the legislation but the company had no part in it.

“We weren’t behind any motion like this,” he said. “Obviously, this sounds like it’s something that’s aimed at helping agriculture.”

Carl Sinderbrand is an attorney for the Pleasant Lake Management District. He said the prohibition would simply shift the Richfield Dairy opponents’ focus to other avenues, such as whether the high-capacity wells alone would have a detrimental effect.

The finance committee finished its work on the budget last week. The spending plan now goes to the full Assembly and Senate for debate. Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, have said they don’t want either chamber to make any changes to the package before forwarding it to Walker for his signature.

The governor can use his extensive partial veto powers to rewrite the package to his liking. Asked whether Walker supports the well language, his spokesman said only that the governor will review the entire budget when it reaches his desk.

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