William & Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review


Danielle Takacs


It may seem surprising to see such concern over groundwater usage in a state like Wisconsin. While known for its dairy and cheese production, Wisconsin is first in the nation for producing snap beans and cranberries. Agriculture contributes $88.3 billion annually to Wisconsin’s economy alone. In addition to bordering two of the Great Lakes, Lake Michigan and Lake Superior, Wisconsin boasts that it is home to about 15,000 lakes. And this does not include the numerous rivers and streams throughout the state. These facts alone may make Wisconsin seem an unlikely place for disputes over groundwater, as water seems to be an abundant resource. When one thinks about water issues in the United States, it is easier to think of the problems faced by western states like Arizona or California. But it seems now that groundwater issues plague more than just the western part of the country. South Carolina, Virginia, and even Michigan are just a few states with growing concerns about the usage and quantity of their groundwater supply. Their concerns are not unfounded. A combination of increasing temperatures and an increase in agricultural production threatens to deplete groundwater sources worldwide. Groundwater depletion threatens food production, damages wetlands, causes land subsidence, and may add to sea level rise. Unsustainable use of groundwater is a serious issue, so even states ripe with water should be concerned about their supplies. The seriousness of unsustainable groundwater use is illustrated by a recent Wisconsin legislative act. Wisconsin Senate Bill 76 came into effect on June 1, 2017, upon receiving Governor Scott Walker’s signature, becoming 2017 Wisconsin Act 10. Wisconsin Act 10 amended previous language pertaining to high-capacity wells and the approval these wells need to obtain from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (“DNR”). Specifically, the act amended section 281.34(2) through section 281.34(2g) and states that if a high-capacity well has already been approved, the owner of the well does not need to obtain additional approval when making repairs on the well, constructing a new well to replace the existing one, reconstructing the well, or transferring the land upon which the well exists. Before this act, the state legislature obviously believed DNR approval was necessary during the repair, replacement, or sale of highcapacity wells. What has changed? It has been noted that high-capacity well permits, unlike other state permits, never expire. Regardless of the reasons for this change in law, it is a mistake to think that this law will be sustainable for Wisconsin in the future as climate change occurs. Wisconsin Act 10 is a scaling back of groundwater regulation, yet states considered to be “water-rich” should not loosen or deregulate the management of their groundwater sources; rather, they should adopt legislation to protect groundwater from the effects of climate change. States and local governments should maintain the authority to regulate the quantity of groundwater supplies with flexibility and adopt policies that focus on long-term sustainable water use. This Note briefly discusses the mechanisms of groundwater and the threats climate change poses. Next, this Note examines current groundwater regulations in the water-rich states of Wisconsin and Michigan and the consequences of deregulation of groundwater. Finally, this Note discusses what potential groundwater regulations should look like in a future with climate change.