Dispute Over Water Pumping Near Remote Vilas County Lake Enters Fifth Year

Oct 31, 2019

The entrance gates to the Carlin Club, which proclaim it "The Home of Carlin Water."
Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

Simple parts of life make Mary Watkins happy.

She kayaks on her lake, hosts football parties, and enjoys time with her yellow lab, Ruby.

“I have a dog.  I like to walk my dog.  I would be afraid to go out there.  You came down that road.  It’s narrow.  I think it would disrupt the quiet.  It would disrupt the whole reason everybody’s here,” Watkins said.

Watkins is talking about a company’s proposal to send three tanker semis daily down the one-lane road to her home on Carlin Lake near Presque Isle in Vilas County.

Mary Watkins stands on the shore of Carlin Lake, near her home.
Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

The trucks would collect 18,000 gallons of well water every day at the lodge and restaurant next door called the Carlin Club, hauling it away for commercial bottling.

“Diesel fumes and the noise,” Watkins said.  “It’s not right.”

The company is headed by Trig Solberg, the founder of Trig’s supermarkets.  Year after year, its plans have been blocked by judges, boards, and administrators.  The strongest resistance to the proposal comes from a citizen group that includes Watkins.

She has opposed the plan since it was first hatched.  So has Ramona Kubica.

“We all thought it was an early April Fools’ joke,” Kubica said of learning about the plan.

On Monday, Kubica was hosting Watkins, Carmen Farwell, Barbara LaPean, and Cecil Davis at her kitchen table.

All of them live on Carlin Lake, and they’ve all been fighting for almost five years to block the plan.

Carlin Lake.
Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

“It all boils down to, you are trying to protect your water resources.  You’re trying to protect all of your other resources.  It’s the noise.  It’s the fumes.  It’s the trucks in and out on a narrow driveway,” Kubica said.

The Carlin Club is a once-thriving bar, restaurant, and lodge that’s proud of its water quality.

There’s even a “Home of Carlin Water” sign on its entrance gate.

However, at the kitchen table, Farwell said the water here is good, but not special.

“I think the drinking water that we share, we share with everybody in this north part of Vilas County.  We have beautiful lakes, beautiful water to drink,” Farwell said.  “[But] we’ve never seen any evidence that there’s anything specifically better about water from the well at the Carlin Club.”

Trig Solberg at a 2018 hearing on his pumping and bottling plans.
Credit Ben Meyer/WJFW

Nonetheless, in early 2015, a group headed by Solberg started planning to bottle that water for commercial sale.

In addition to founding Trig’s, Solberg served as the chair of the state Natural Resources Board for seven years.

Originally, Solberg’s company wanted to transport the water to Minocqua for bottling.  But that idea fell through.  Transporting the water from watershed to watershed would be a violation of the Great Lakes Compact.

Then, the company hoped to build a bottling plant in Presque Isle itself.  But at a May 2016 town meeting, 153 people came out in opposition to the plan.  Just twelve supported it, effectively killing the idea.

Now, the company hopes to truck the water to a bottling facility in Marenisco, Mich.

But in November 2016, that group at the kitchen table filed a lawsuit to end the pumping and transporting idea for good.

Five of the plaintiffs fighting to stop water pumping and trucking from near Carlin Lake. In the front row, from left to right, are Ramona Kubica and Barbara LaPean. In the back row, from left to right, are Cecil Davis, Carmen Farwell, and Mary Watkins.
Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

It was the first time many were involved in any kind of legal action, and many were nervous to be deposed as plaintiffs.

“Big time,” said LaPean.

The well at the Carlin Club from which, according to Mary Watkins, water would be pumped for bottling.
Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

The Carlin Club is in a residential zoning area.  While its function as a lodge, bar, and restaurant are grandfathered in, the group argued its permitted uses shouldn’t be expanded to allow commercial pumping.

“They don’t want to know the facts.  All they want to do is they just want to stop this.  It’s like they’re with pitchforks going after Frankenstein,” Solberg’s attorney, Tim Casper, told WJFW-TV during court proceedings.  “They don’t care what the facts are.  They’ll make up whatever they can make up.”

But Judge Leon Stenz barred the company from pumping, and an appeals court agreed.

The company wasn’t done, petitioning the Vilas County Zoning Department and Board of Adjustment, both of which rejected the plan.

Solberg wouldn’t comment for this story and didn’t authorize his attorney, John Houlihan, to speak.  But he spoke to WJFW at the time.

“Obviously, we’re disappointed.  The Carlin water is a fantastic brand, and it would have done real well without hurting the environment,” Solberg said after the Board of Adjustment rejection.

The group trying to defend Carlin Lake isn’t making an environmental argument in its legal action.  It hasn’t attempted to find out whether the proposed pumping could impact water levels or quality in Carlin Lake.  Instead, it’s making a zoning argument.  Even so, concerns linger.

“That water’s being taken away.  It’s not like the water that we use in our homes that’s being reintroduced back into the aquifer eventually,” Kubica said.  “This water is going.  It’s gone.  It will never come back.”

Another appeal, this one to Vilas County Circuit Court Judge Neal Nielsen, bounced the case back to another Board of Adjustment hearing, which is coming up Nov. 14.

The lake group hopes its success stays the same.

“We have won in every hearing, every appeal, every time we’ve gone to court,” Kubica said.

Even so, almost five years of battling feels exhausting.

“You go to bed with it at night.  You wake up with it in the morning, and then, all of a sudden, bam, something else hits.  It’s like they’re throwing something against the wall to see whatever sticks,” LaPean said.  “But we’re sticking together.”

Carlin Lake in the summer.
Credit Carmen Farwell

The group has that attitude to protect their lake, but also to lead the way for others.  Dozens of individuals and lake groups from across the state have shown support in the Carlin Lake case, fearing an adverse decision could set a precedent for other lakes.

“I’ve heard people call this a landmark case.  Our attorneys never disagreed with that,” Kubica said.

The group’s attorney, Dan Bach, doesn’t think the Nov. 14 hearing will necessarily be the end.  It’s possible, if not likely, the case will go to another appeal.

“It would not surprise me if the matter lands before Judge Nielsen once again,” Bach said.

Even though the process to stop daily tanker trucks near their lake feels exhausting, the Carlin Lake group is trying to stay positive.

It’s not personal, they say.

In fact, the cookies on that kitchen table were from a Trig’s supermarket.