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MADISON, Wis. - The latest twist in the bitter dispute over state groundwater playing out in the courts and at the Capitol includes the Department of Natural Resources' approval of high-capacity wells in areas deemed harmful to trout streams.
In 2015, the agency found pumping could harm the streams. And last year, a Madison judge invalidated three well permits near Fourmile, Buena Vista and Stoltenburg creeks out of concern the wells could impair those streams. The permits approved this year allow wells possibly even closer than the original permits. And Evan Feinauer, staff attorney with the conservation group Clean Wisconsin, said this move puts the state's water resources, and overall environment, in jeopardy. "We have an attorney general who has effectively ordered scientists at the Department of Natural Resources to stick their head in the sand and ignore impacts we know are occurring," Feinauer said. "And so now we're in sort of a denialism phase rather than a solutions phase, and we need to be in the solutions phase."
Fenauer said one solution is getting the Legislature to determine how best to address sharing the state's water supply without harming the environment. DNR spokesman Jim Dick said the agency approved the permits based on Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel's opinion that the agency can't consider well impacts on nearby waters. Feinauer said there is also an environmental and economic case to be made for protecting the trout streams, since the science shows heavy pumping from the underground aquifer has been drying up lakes, streams and other wells. "Trout fishing and trout tourism is big business in Wisconsin," he said. "It's staggering the amount of jobs and the amount of money that comes in, and also the amount of fun and recreation that people have. It's part of our natural heritage, fishing. "
After seeing Clean Wisconsin win its court challenge against the issuing of the permits, and then seeing the permits get approved anyway, Feinauer said a legislative fix is in order. But the chances of that happening depend largely on the Democrats gaining control of state government. At the urging of industry groups, the Republican-controlled Legislature has loosened pumping rules, saying farmers need the water for crops.