Deregulation and Wisconsin’s Disappearing Lakes

It was a long-standing Wisconsin tradition. Every Friday afternoon during the summer, families packed up their cars, jammed the kids into the backseat, and left their southeastern Wisconsin homes behind, heading out of the city to private cottages and small fishing resorts to spend time on blue, spring-fed Wisconsin lakes.

This tradition was enabled by good-paying union jobs when the southeastern Wisconsin was a regional manufacturing center. With succeeding generations, the cottages became more upscale, and Pabst and Schlitz and swarms of shrieking kids were replaced by middle-aged wine-tasting parties.

The lakes were never all that clear, but all those reeds coming up from the bottom were a good place for fish to hide. And now, in some areas, the reeds have begun to take over, turning lakes into marshes. Beaches are expanding until lakes are nothing but puddles.

This is the story in the part of Wisconsin known as the Central Sands, a six-county area where lakes and streams are literally disappearing.

Nowhere are the consequences of the Republican party’s near-demented passion for deregulation more evident. Nowhere is it more evident what deregulation really means: the big money wins, and the rights of the individual taxpayer are ignored, simply waved away.

How the Lake-Water Draw-Down Works

A responsible state government would be concerned about the lake-water draw-down in the Sand Counties. Because this is not a natural process. It’s the result of massive wells – wells with a capacity of 100,000 gallons per day – drilled deep into the aquifers to irrigate large farming operations.

For the Walker administration and the Republicans in both houses of Wisconsin’s legislature, the squandering of a vital piece of Wisconsin’s natural heritage is an opportunity to further their allegiance to the big-money donors who fill campaign coffers and whose voices are always listened to, even when they’re lying through their teeth.

On June 1, Senate Bill 76 was signed into law by Governor Walker, allowing “reconstruction,” including “deepening,” of high-capacity wells in Wisconsin without additional approval from the DNR.

High-capacity wells are already causing serious problems — have been for decades. And instead of addressing these problems, the Republicans have passed another law that insures that those problems will continue to get worse.

Kimberlee Wright, executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates, says, “I’m shocked by how obstinate legislators and the Governor have been to the overwhelming public opposition to this bill—opposition based in sound science and real-life impacts to families.”

Wright is shocked, but she can hardly be surprised. Such actions are, after all, the norm in Scott Walker’s Wisconsin.

What are the Central Sands?

The Central Sands region is a 1.75 million-acre swath in the lower-middle of the state comprising the counties of Marquette, Portage, Shawano, Waupaca, Waushara, and Wood, and parts of Adams and Marathon. It’s a couple hours’ drive from Milwaukee and was once a prime destination for weekend lake dwellers.

A report by the Central Sands Water Coalition, a group of waterfront property owners, states that “50% of all high-capacity wells” in the state of Wisconsin are in six of the Central Sands counties “and more wells are going in monthly.”
The impact of these wells is clear, at least to those who are willing to see it. According to a UW-Stevens Point study conducted in 2010, “water levels and stream discharges have been notably depressed.”

For example, the Little Plover River, “a formerly high-quality trout stream and a Wisconsin Exceptional Resource Water,” was nearly dry in 2005 and stretches of the Little Plover continue to run dry every year. According to Central Sands, the Little Plover is currently on the list of America’s 10 Most Endangered rivers.

The UW-Stevens Point study reports that Long Lake near Plainfield in Waushara County, a once 45-acre lake, “has been near to dry since 2005.” It notes that “other lakes in that vicinity have dried,” while still others, like Pickerel and Wolf Lakes, have experienced “depressed water levels.”

In a comprehensive article on the Central Sands problem, “War Over Water in the Land of Plenty,” published in the Journal-Sentinel last September, Lee Berquist describes what happened to Long Lake, where “grass and shrubs poke up from a lake that once held largemouth bass and northern pike.” Long Lake, reports Berquist, has “withered to a marsh.”

The situation for homeowners on Long Lake is heartbreaking. “There is no way I could put out a dock. There is no way I could put out a boat. I can’t fish,” Brian Wolf told Berquist. Property values on the affected lakes have, of course, plummeted.


The Republican Numbers Game

However, the owners of large farms, those represented by the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association, take a different view. The association has created a High Capacity Well Fact Book, which states that: “Scientists have established that annual precipitation maintains the static groundwater levels at maximum height.” In other words, it’s just not raining enough to keep those lakes filled up. Even if there weren’t numerous research studies contradicting the “Fact Book,” this contention would be laughable.

On their Web site, the Potato and Vegetable Growers Association also reports that “specialty crop production and processing account for $6.4 billion in economic activity and 132,000 jobs” in our state.

Numbers like that are hard to argue with in a state as jobs-obsessed as Wisconsin. But those aren’t the only numbers of interest. According to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks campaign donations to candidates, Scott Walker has received $1,985,202.46 in campaign donations from agri-businesses since 2014.

Heartland Farms, a 21,000 acre, irrigated potato and vegetable “farming operation” is a big player in the Sand Counties, and getting bigger. According to its Website, Heartland Farms has been “experiencing substantial growth.”
Though only a minimal donation of $2,000 from Heartland Farms is visible on Walker’s books, the WDC explains that much of the money these days comes from check-bundling “conduits” that hide individual donors from the public, revealing them to the candidate only in private correspondence.

What “Deregulation” Means for Wisconsin

In the meantime, more wells are going in, and more lakes are likely to disappear. And SB 76, the most recent bill, is only the icing on the cake. Walker and the legislature’s efforts to render the DNR toothless began early in the governor’s tenure, with the passage of Act 21, prohibiting state agencies from imposing regulations without directives from lawmakers. On June 10 of last year, the DNR announced that applications for new high-capacity wells would no longer be based on evaluations of “the cumulative effect they could have on the ecosystem,” as Berquist writes in his second article on the subject, “Conflicts Thwart Reforms in State Water Policy.”

But as far as Wisconsin’s Republicans are concerned, there is no conflict. There are to be no regulations on business. The free market rules. Berquist quotes a “leading Wisconsin water scientist” Ken Bradbury, who says the “new approach is a step backward” and leads to an “unplanned future for water use,” one in which, “it’s everybody for themselves again.”

But that’s the whole point. That is the great Republican ideal of “liberty.” The Republicans won’t be happy until they have us back to the 1890s, and we’re all living in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, a place where one of the largest cities in American had no paved roads in poor neighborhoods and workers who seriously damaged themselves in the course of being overworked at a filthy job with long hours and low pay were simply fired if they couldn’t do the work.
Sinclair’s 1906 novel is at least as relevant today as The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984, which have both been back on bestseller lists since Donald Trump took office. I would argue that The Jungle is a far more accurate prediction of what life in America will be like if free market libertarianism prevails.

Missouri Democrat and founder of Let American Vote, Jason Kander gave a speech at the Waukesha County Democrats dinner last Sunday night that concluded with the words: “The entire Republican sales pitch is that ‘change is bad.’ [But] Americans are not meant to fear the future. We are meant to shape the future.”
Shaping the future is what they’re doing across the Mississippi in Democrat-controlled Minnesota, where the DNR has been given the authority to create “groundwater management areas . . .to address difficult groundwater-related resource challenges.”

In Republican-controlled Wisconsin, we just let various entities study the problem and then ignore their findings.

In the meantime, the environmental organization Clean Wisconsin is attempting to protect groundwater in the Central Sands by suing the DNR for its current, legislatively mandated policy of “issuing high-capacity well permits without accounting for the impacts these wells would have on surrounding waterbodies.”

That may be the best we can hope for until November 2018, when we have the opportunity to vote Scott Walker and his minions out of office.

UW-Stevens Point Study

Click to access gwpumpcentralsands2010.pdf

Lee Berquist Articles

Central Sands Water Coalition

Clean Wisconsin

Minnesota DNR GWMAs

Midwest Environmental Advocates

Wisconsin Democracy Campaign

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: