Vanishing Waters?

Numerous lakes and streams are drying up in the Central Sands, but there’s little agreement on what’s causing it. An initiative led by CALS brings together scientists, farmers, residents, environmental advocates and other stakeholders to shed light on the problem and pave the way toward solutions.

Afterward, the WPVGA decided to take a hard look at the situation—on its own terms. It founded a Water Task Force in 2009 that includes Central Sands growers, representatives from area vegetable processing companies and local officials as well as some UW–Madison scientists. “It’s sort of a water-users group for the Central Sands,” says Diercks. “We’re basically trying to figure out if we’re the cause of the area’s surface water declines or not.”

To that end, the group began collecting annual well depth information for more than 250 irrigation wells across the region and is gearing up to start gathering data on a quarterly or monthly basis. It’s also training growers how to measure their wells so that the information collected might be accurate enough to use in scientific studies down the line.

Now, with the advent of the Central Sands Water Initiative, the WPVGA is once again ready to work with the other side. “I think the WPVGA recognizes that this conflict isn’t good for their growers or their industry, and they want to reach out to their neighbors and find a workable solution,” says Nowak, who moderated a stakeholder forum in Stevens Point last summer. It became an object lesson in rebuilding community.

Aware of the situation’s delicacy, Nowak took great pains with forum arrangements. He had members of the local community—about 30 in total, roughly split between the two sides—sit at the front of the room around a large U-shaped grouping of tables. Diercks and homeowner Brian Wolf were there, seated three seats apart. Everybody else sat in the back of the room, including the initiative’s leaders, other scientists, agency staff, lobbyists and others invited to listen.

“I didn’t want lectures from scientists. I didn’t want agency people up there talking about rules,” says Nowak. “The critical thing was to get the local residents talking to each other.” It was Nowak’s hope that a good discussion would set the stage for the initiative to become a true civic science project, where engaged citizens participate in the process from start to finish, helping to develop and refine research questions and implement and assess the solutions.

The critical thing was to get the local residents talking to each other.

With Nowak’s guidance, the group shared questions and discussed answers when available. Questions that couldn’t be answered may serve as fodder for future initiative-led research projects. Are there better crops—with lower ET rates—to grow in the area? How can lakes near Plainfield, like Long Lake, be low when others just 10 miles away are overflowing? Why doesn’t the DNR factor in the cumulative impact of existing high-cap wells when they consider approving new ones? How big would a no-pumping zone have to be to refill Long Lake? How will solutions be paid for?

“I came out of the meeting feeling optimistic that a civil discourse had begun,” says Nowak. “The two sides didn’t agree on much, but they resolved to continue the discussion.”

Diercks thought the meeting “went about as well as could be expected,” but didn’t focus enough on climate change’s potential role in the problem. Wolf appreciated the open dialog but came away worried that solutions wouldn’t come fast enough. “People are going to keep drilling wells while we discuss these things,” he says. “We need to stop the damage now.”

The group did reach agreement on two important points. Every person at the front table acknowledged that high-cap wells have some kind of impact on nearby surface waters. And everybody, with only one exception, wanted the group to meet again.

They did so this past December and have a third meeting scheduled this spring. By all accounts, they are making good progress.

Solutions to the area’s water problems will likely take a number of forms, including farmers adopting more water-efficient farming practices in the region. Last fall, horticulture professor A.J. Bussan, who works closely with the state’s potato and vegetable growers, received a large U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to explore a number of innovative, water-saving irrigation and cropping systems. This is the university’s first big research grant under the Central Sand Water Initiative’s umbrella—and the first of many that the initiative’s leaders hope to receive.

But to actually refill specific dry or depleted surface waters likely will require more aggressive, targeted approaches. Farmers may need to take fields out of production or shut down wells near troubled lakes and streams. “It may work out that a farmer needs to move a well one mile away from a stream, but can still farm the same field. That’s a pretty okay solution from the farmer’s perspective,” says Diercks, who notes that the high-cap well legislation his group proposed in 2003 originally included a mitigation fund to help farmers pay for these kinds of changes. “It would have been funded by high-cap well fees, but it got cut from the final bill.”