EVEN BEFORE HE BOUGHT A SUMMER CABIN on Long Lake in 2004, Brian Wolf was concerned about the water level. At its deepest point, the Waushara County lake was only about five feet deep, down from historical highs around 10 feet. “I contacted the folks at a state agency asking, ‘Can you tell me what’s up? I’m worried it’s a dying lake,’” says Wolf, a psychologist based in Kenosha. “The response I got back was, ‘There’s no such thing as a dying lake.’”
During his family’s first summer there, Wolf’s worries seemed unfounded. His children caught and released dozens of bass. But by the summer of 2006, the lake had gone almost completely dry—it was a muddy bed littered with dead fish. Now it’s just a grassy field that floods during rainy spells. “Do we still enjoy our cabin? Absolutely. Do we enjoy it as a lake place? No,” says Wolf. Property values dropped so much that “they basically stopped taxing folks on Long Lake as having lake property,” he says.
And Long Lake wasn’t the only place with water problems. Around the same time, a number of other lakes and streams in the Central Sands region, the heart of Wisconsin’s $6 billion potato and vegetable industry, went dry or hit record lows. A landscape once covered in prairie and scrub oak, the region is now a mosaic of circles—160-acre fields of potatoes, sweet corn, peas and other specialty vegetables watered by center-pivot irrigation systems. These systems keep the region’s crops alive between rains and are fed by high-capacity wells that each can pump more than 100,000 gallons per day from the region’s aquifer. Many of those concerned about the area’s disappearing surface waters see the pumps as the obvious culprit, sucking water up and away from local groundwater-fed lakes and streams. Yet the problem may not be that simple.
To help understand and solve the region’s growing water dilemma, CALS has launched a Central Sands Water Initiative with support from the college’s Wisconsin Institute for Sustainable Agriculture. The initiative aims to bring together a broad network of stakeholders—including farmers from the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association, members of local lake and environmental groups, state and federal agency staff, and scientists from UW–Madison and beyond—not only to study the impact of irrigation pumping on the region’s ground and surface waters, but also to find solutions to help refill the dry lakes and streams. At the same time, the initiative’s scientists also plan to explore the possibility that a larger force is altering the overall water balance in the region: climate change.
“Some believe the facts are well established, that irrigation is the only reason for the problem, but we don’t really know that yet,” says Sam Kung, a professor of soil science and the initiative’s coordinator. “It’s also possible that the region’s climate has changed in such a way that the atmosphere is taking more water away from the system.”
Either way, water shortages are expected to increase around the world, where 70 percent of the fresh water people use goes to food production.
“Water is on the cusp of being limited in a substantial way almost everywhere around the globe, and because of water’s importance in agriculture, it’s obvious that solutions will have to have an agricultural focus,” says A.J. Bussan PhD’97, a horticulture professor who leads the initiative’s crop production studies. “Through this initiative, the Central Sands has the potential to serve as a model for other places with multifaceted water demands, showing them how a community can come together to devise a water policy that’s effective.”
But getting the Central Sands community to sit down and talk won’t be easy. Its members are engaged in a contentious debate about the region’s water woes, and with so much at stake—including growers’ livelihoods, residents’ investments and the survival of local lakes and streams—it’s bound to be a difficult conversation.
“This isn’t the typical CALS situation where there’s a problem out there that everybody acknowledges, we marshal CALS science and go solve the problem, and everybody lives happily ever after,” says Peter Nowak, a rural sociologist and emeritus professor at UW’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies who last summer agreed to moderate a series of community forums for Central Sands citizens.
Nowak was tapped for the job because of his success in the late 1990s with the Wisconsin Buffer Initiative, which brought farmers and environmentalists together to address the problem of agricultural runoff in the state’s waterways.
“The beginning of the process is just getting everybody to talk,” says Nowak, who expects the new initiative to be an even bigger challenge. “This is a hot situation. This is what social scientists would call rancorous conflict.”
TO UNDERSTAND the recent history of irrigation in Wisconsin, one can start at Coloma Farms. Now a bountiful 2,700 acres of potatoes, soybeans and field corn, Coloma Farms began with just 80 acres in 1961, when the Diercks family established it as one of the first irrigated operations in the Central Sands.
To the Diercks family and most of those who grow crops on the region’s 200,000 acres of farmland, irrigation doesn’t just make their farms more productive; it’s an essential part of the business model. Sandy soils drain quickly. That’s an advantage for root crops because well-drained soils harbor less disease, but it also means they need frequent replenishment.
“Even if it rains two inches, you still only end up with three-quarters of an inch held in the topsoil, which is only about two days’ worth for potato plants during the summer,” says Andy Diercks BS’93, who co-owns the farm with his father, Steve. Full-season potatoes—the thirstiest of Coloma Farms’ crops—require between eight and 12 inches of irrigated water during a typical growing season.
Until recently, water wasn’t widely seen as a problem in the Central Sands. The region gets about 32 inches of precipitation in an average year, and it has a vast aquifer composed of sandy sediment permeated by water more than 100 feet deep in most areas. Rainfall and snowmelt continually recharge the aquifer, in stark contrast to the situation in the Great Plains, where extensive pumping for agriculture and other uses is steadily depleting the 174,000-square-mile Ogallala Aquifer. But clearly something has knocked the Central Sands hydrology out of balance.
And it’s not just dry lakes and streams. Beneath the surface, the water table has dropped to a worrying degree at a number of U.S. Geological Survey monitoring wells around the region. About eight miles north of Coloma Farms, the Hancock Agricultural Research Station’s well has dropped an unexpected three to five feet over the past 15 years. “From a pumping standpoint, that’s not a lot because the aquifer is so deep,” says soil science professor Bill Bland. “But it’s that top six feet of groundwater that feeds the area’s streams and maintains the lake levels, so it’s a big problem for people with lake cottages.”
Diercks is well aware of the surface water problems in the area, but he’s not willing to pin the blame on growers without more information. “The question is, what’s causing these problems? And how do we solve them, if we’re at fault?” he says. “If the scientists convince us that we’re the cause, then we’ll certainly be the first ones to line up to work out a solution.”
But figuring out what’s going on is a challenge. Scientists would like to compare the aquifer recharge that occurs on crop fields versus recharge on fields of native vegetation. Recharge, in turn, is affected by the amount of water that plants give off in the form of evaporation and transpiration, known together as evapotranspiration, or ET.
“You can think of evapotranspiration as a reverse, invisible rain. It’s happening all the time, but you can’t see it,” explains Bland. “If it doesn’t rain for two weeks, the native plants slow their water use—like they’re starting to go dormant—and there’s much less ET from the landscape they cover. However, our irrigated crops are always evapotranspiring water at the rate the atmosphere will accept it,” transferring, in essence, water from the aquifer to the atmosphere, where it blows away.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to quantify ET and recharge in the field, so scientists often turn to computer models and other methods for answers. Using a computer model, Bland found that stands of prairie do a better job recharging the aquifer than forests and irrigated field corn. A statistical analysis, performed by Kung, shows that ET has increased significantly across the entire western part of the Great Lakes region over the past 15 years—evidence, he believes, that climate change could be a factor in the Central Sands’ water situation. “It’s like nature is taking away more from us across the whole landscape,” says Kung. “It’s like an invisible hand is stealing our water.”
But another study by hydrogeologist George Kraft PhD’90, director of the Center for Watershed Science and Education at UW–Stevens Point, points in a different direction. Kraft reports seeing bigger water level drops in areas with intensive irrigation compared to areas with relatively little agricultural development. “Because all of the well levels, lake levels and stream flows that I looked at were within the Central Sands region, that rules out climate change as a major factor,” Kraft explains. Kraft’s results have been widely embraced by members of Central Sands’ lake and environmental groups.
These studies aside, Wisconsin’s climate has changed. The average annual temperature in the Central Sands increased by one degree between 1950 and 2006 and the growing season lengthened by one to two weeks, according to a 2011 report by the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts. Although these changes would be expected to increase the overall ET in the area, explains Chris Kucharik, an agronomy professor and one of the report’s authors, the impact of ET appears to be minimal compared to one of the other major climate-related changes they found: increased rainfall. Over the 57-year period covered in the report, average annual precipitation in the region increased between two and four inches. “If anything,” he says, “the way climate has been changing should actually help elevate groundwater levels, not cause them to decline.”
As part of the Central Sands Water Initiative, scientists from UW–Madison, UW–Stevens Point, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and the U.S. Geological and Natural History Survey have begun meeting regularly to share their work, and agreement is building around the idea that pumping and climate both may play a role, with climate change possibly exacerbating farmers’ need to pump. The group is now seeking grants to do the studies that may enable them to reach a scientific consensus. In the meantime, the problem won’t be put on hold. “We can’t wait around for another year or two to connect the dots,” says entomologist Jeff Wyman, who conceived of the initiative and now helps coordinate it through the Wisconsin Institute for Sustainable Agriculture. “The agricultural response is already happening.”
IN THE DEBATE over Central Sands water use, nothing has embodied “rancorous conflict” more than the dispute over high-capacity wells. Local lake and stream advocates say the wells are draining the aquifer and drying the lakes—especially since they’ve been allowed to proliferate in the region (at 2,300 and counting in Adams, Portage and Waushara counties) with little regard for environmental consequences. To growers, high-cap wells are indispensable, the foundational technology that enabled the Central Sands region to become one of the nation’s leading vegetable bins.
To hear Andy Diercks tell the story, things started out amiably enough. He is a member of the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association (WPVGA), which has long prided itself on taking a proactive approach to environmental problems. The association helped initiate talks that led to Wisconsin’s first high-capacity well law in 2003. The law, known as Act 310, helps protect certain surface waters from pumping, stipulating that high-cap wells should be at least 1,200 feet away from large springs, trout streams and other pristine waters.
“We sat down for probably 18 months, just a small group of six or seven of us, hashed out something between agricultural and environmental concerns that we thought both sides could live with, and then took it to the legislature,” recalls Diercks, who participated in the process and notes that a number of “important parts” of the bill got cut before it passed. “Ever since, the environmental side has been saying, ‘Okay, great. That was a good start, but it’s not enough. We need more.’”
In 2009, inspired by a report assessing Wisconsin’s groundwater resources, state Senator Mark Miller (D-Monona) and then-Representative Spencer Black (D-Madison) started working on a new bill that would go farther to protect surface waters from high-volume pumping. While stories differ on the extent to which growers were involved in the legislative process this time around—from some to very little—it is generally agreed that the final product ended up containing more for environmentalists to like than for growers.
Although the legislation ultimately died in committee, the experience left a bad taste with the growers.
“They felt that the environmentalists not only were wrong about the science, but that they had violated the trust that had been developed during earlier discussions,” explains Nowak.
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.”
HOW THEY HAVE GROWN – Increase in Central Wisconsin’s high-capacity wells from 1950 to 2010
Images provided by George Kraft/UW – Stevens Point
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.
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.”
Some mitigation strategies already are being employed to help the Little Plover River, a trout stream just south of Stevens Point. In the summer of 2005, stretches of the river ran dry for the first time in recorded history. It happened again in 2006. The river flowed all through 2007, 2008 and 2009, but only because farmers pumped groundwater from high-cap wells into its headwaters.
“When the river dried up, it was like it died. I mourned for it,” says Barbara Feltz, who lives on the river and in 2005 helped found the Friends of the Little Plover River to try to save it. Feltz serves as the group’s president.
Over the years, the Friends group has wrangled an assortment of agreements to keep the Little Plover River flowing. The Village of Plover, for one, transferred some of its municipal pumping to a more distant well. It’s also seeking funding to purchase 40 acres of former agricultural land near the river’s headwaters—the first step in a proposed 140-acre land acquisition—for a wetland restoration and multi-use park. Farmers near the stream grow some low-water crops like snap beans, peas and short-season potatoes, and a Del Monte vegetable processing facility now sprays used processing water on a field near the river. But that’s far from enough, Feltz believes: “It’s very difficult to drive behavior change when everything’s voluntary and it affects people’s pocketbooks.”
Feltz and other surface water advocates would like to see the Central Sands region designated an official state groundwater management area. As such, the region would have a water budget that limits pumping to protect the area’s lakes and streams. They want this system codified into law and take some heart in a little-publicized state Supreme Court decision in 2011, Lake Beulah Management District v. State of Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, that found the DNR has the authority and duty to consider the impact of proposed high-cap wells on the state’s waters before approving them.
Nowak believes a new groundwater law is inevitable. “It’s not a question of if—it’s a question of when and the nature of that law,” he says. He would like to see it done right—and done once—preferably incorporating aspects of adaptive management, where water allocations are decided based on the levels of nearby lakes and streams, local groundwater levels, regional weather predictions and other science-based information.
But growers are wary of new legislation and are concerned that production uncertainties associated with a water budget could drive processing companies out of the state. “It’s not our preferred outcome to have a board—which we may or may not have representation on—tell us what our businesses can do,” says Diercks. “We don’t want any new legislation unless it’s reasonable.” Growers, he says, would prefer community-level agreements that address specific problems.
Despite these differences, both sides express hope that the Central Sands Water Initiative can help the community find common ground and workable solutions.
“What we get accused of—and that might be a strong word—is wanting to put the ag people out of business. That certainly isn’t anybody’s intention,” says Wolf. “Let’s work together on this. Let’s agree that there’s an issue and that everybody should be able to share in that resource, whether it’s a grower who needs to irrigate his fields or a landowner who wants to sit on his dock and dip his toes in the water.”
If the Central Sands community is successful—if they can figure out how to maintain agricultural productivity in the area while keeping the region’s aquifer and surface waters full—they will have created something valuable and increasingly rare in this world: a secure, sustainable source of water that meets the needs of the entire community.
“Compared to other potato-growing regions in the United States, the Central Sands has abundant rainfall and water supplies,” says Diercks. “This seems like a place where we should be able to make this work.”