George Kraft Discusses Central Wisconsin Groundwater

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George Kraft Discusses Central Wisconsin Groundwater

Premiere Date: 
July 18, 2013

George Kraft discusses the WCIJ report about groundwater in central Wisconsin.

 

Episode Transcript: 

Frederica Freyberg:

Now to Stevens Point for water sustainability and resource management of a different sort. With 15,000 lakes there's water everywhere in Wisconsin, right? Well, wrong, according to a new report by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. Experts say the expansion of high-capacity wells is seriously drawing down groundwater, as well as lakes and stream levels in central Wisconsin. The region is in the heart of our potato growing region. You've no doubt seen those huge watering systems misting their way across the potato and cornfields outside of places like Plover. George Kraft is professor of water resources at UW-Stevens Point and UW-Extension. He’s studied the streams, lakes, and ground water in central Wisconsin for many years. His extensive research was used in the report. He joins us now from Stevens Point and, Professor, thanks very much for doing so.

George Kraft:

Good evening.

Frederica Freyberg:

Well, what does your research say about water usage in the Central Sands region and whether or not that usage is in fact to blame for the drawdown of lake levels there?

George Kraft:

Well, pretty much my work just confirmed what people predicted already in 1970s, and a number of studies in the Central Sands that said, you know, when we get beyond a certain point of groundwater pumping, because groundwater is connected to lakes and connected to streams, if we pass a certain threshold, we're going to make those water bodies unsustainable or sometimes dry. And indeed, that's what we've seen the last number of years, that these water bodies have become stressed in periods of relatively wet weather when you look at it over a decade and still they're impaired.

Frederica Freyberg:

So how critical would you regard this problem?

George Kraft:

Well, for a lot of people it's highly critical. When we're drying out streams, the people who fish that stream or love cold water fisheries or live along there, it's critical for them. For people who have summer homes or fish a lot of these lakes that are effectively dead lakes, it's critical for them. It's a critical issue for the region because we're expanding high-capacity wells at the rate of 100, 150 or something like that. It's a critical region for Wisconsin because we're making more Central Sands regions in other parts of the state and we can expect that, give it a decade or two, we're going to have to be having water issues in those particular parts of the state as well.

Frederica Freyberg:

I was going to ask, is there particular to Central Sands or is it across the state?

George Kraft:

Unfortunately, we haven't been doing a good job of tracking how much groundwater we're pumping and what the impacts are on our surface water. Until the last few years, we didn't have a clue. Now at least we know where the water is being pumped, but in most places besides the Central Sands, we haven't related that pumping to how much lower the lake levels are or how much reduced stream flows there are. That's still work that needs to be done through most of Wisconsin.

Frederica Freyberg:

Now, is climate change or could climate change, for example, last summer where it was so hot and dry, be the cause of these drawdowns?  

George Kraft:

Well, you know, given that in some places in central Wisconsin we've been seeing water levels declining for 40 years now, and, you know, in some other places since 1990, it's not like a sudden climate change is doing this. And the other thing when we look at the climate record, we've seen that in central Wisconsin it's actually been getting wetter. We get about an inch more rain than average in Stevens Point.   In Hancock and Wautoma we get 2, 2.5 inches more. So there isn't a climate signal here that seems to be capable of causing the dry lakes and streams. If anything, it seems that we should be seeing higher water levels than we used to. And indeed in nearby locations where we're not doing a lot of pumping, water levels are pretty robust and pretty high.

Frederica Freyberg:

How does Wisconsin balance the need for water on the fields or in manufacturing or in municipalities with the need for water in the lakes? How do you balance this?

George Kraft:

Good question. You know, we haven't wanted to deal with that. You know, we've dealt with that with direct pumping out of surface waters that people can pump waters out of lakes and water out of streams to a certain point. But then no more. And we haven't gotten there with groundwater yet. We could probably take our surface water laws and transition it to groundwater using the public trust doctrine and philosophy. And that would be one way of doing it. But we-- you know, we have not had the-- the efforts in the legislature yet to go that direction, and have been kind of grinding it out in the courts to this point to figure out how we're going to do it. But just because we haven't had the discussion yet doesn't mean that lakes and streams are going dry. The longer we ignore it, the greater our problem will be when we finally come to grips with it.

Frederica Freyberg:

Who needs to step up on this issue, in your mind?

George Kraft:

Well, ultimately these sorts of things are in the legislature, and you can imagine, it's a contentious and difficult thing for them to do when there are, you know, well-organized interests who want to pump a lot of water for economic purposes and there's kind of a power disparity. We don't have a mirror of water advocates for lakes and streams of equal stature. So it's a tough job for them. And the most significant things have happened in the courts with common law and constitutional protections.

Frederica Freyberg:

All right, Professor George Kraft, thanks very much for your work and expertise on this.

George Kraft:

Thank you very much. 


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