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Could PEI learn from Wisconsin’s experience with deep well irrigation?

As the Council of Canadians calls on the the government of Prince Edward Island to legislate a complete ban on all deep well irrigation, we are looking at the experience in Wisconsin with high-capacity wells.

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism reports, “In the six-county area known as Wisconsin’s Central Sands — made up of Adams, Portage, Marquette, Wood, Waushara and Waupaca counties — residents … have watched water levels in lakes and small streams drop for years. …The receding water levels have come as the number of high-capacity wells — those that can draw 100,000 gallons of water per day — have dramatically increased.”

“In the early 1950s, there were fewer than 100 high-capacity wells in the Central Sands, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. Today, there are more than 3,000 — 40 percent of the state’s total. Farmers say they need the water to irrigate crops like potatoes and corn. …But water quality advocates and experts say the wells are drawing down surface water and affecting recreational lakes and streams. …(Research by) George Kraft, a hydrologist, …shows that water in lakes near high-capacity wells have declined steadily since 2000 while those farther away have not.”

“The DNR can impose restrictions on well permits based on potential adverse environmental impacts. But its lawyers say the agency cannot take into account the cumulative effect of other owners’ wells. And lawmakers want to keep it that way. As part of the new two-year budget that took effect July 1, the Legislature took away citizens’ ability to challenge well permits issued by the DNR even when evidence suggests the new well would contribute, along with other neighboring wells, to lower surface-water levels.”

“Several groups and individuals, including Friends of the Central Sands, have sued the DNR over the permitting policy, alleging it failed to protect Pleasant Lake and other nearby lakes and streams when it issued two well permits to Richfield Dairy, a proposed 4,550-head operation in Adams County. …Although the Supreme Court has determined that the DNR has the legal right to consider the adverse effect of a well on nearby water when issuing a permit, it did not directly address cumulative impacts…”

In terms of this dairy farm, the Wisconsin Sentinal Journal notes, “A recent decision by the state Department of Natural Resources to approve high-capacity wells for an industrial-size central Wisconsin dairy farm faces legal challenges, and critics of the agency’s action say the outcome of the dispute could mean the difference between regional water shortages and healthy streams and lakes. …The proposed 4,300-cow Richfield Dairy (would have two large and deep wells that would) pump a total of 72.5 million gallons of water a year. That is equivalent, according to engineering consultants hired by the farm’s law firm, to an average rate of 138 gallons per minute.”

There is an additional component to the situation in Wisconsin. Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason recently wrote, “Waukesha, Wis., is running out of fresh water. Located just a few miles from the shores of Lake Michigan, the city of 70,000 wants to use the lake to replenish its quickly diminishing aquifer – a request that has touched off an international dispute. …(Thunder Bay Mayor Keith) Hobbs believes granting Waukesha’s application for access to the lake would set a dangerous precedent and touch off potential water wars (between Canada and the United States).”

On March 13, the Council of Canadians will be presenting to the Prince Edward Island legislature’s Standing Committee of Agriculture, Environment, Energy and Forestry on the issue of deep well irrigation.