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Tuesday, May 28, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Greens Challenge Wis. Agency’s Well Permits

MADISON, Wis. (CN) — Ignoring warnings from state administrators, Wisconsin's conservation agency is shirking its responsibilities by blindly approving high-capacity well permits, an environmental group claims in court.

Clean Wisconsin Inc. filed nine lawsuits Friday against the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, demanding that it rescind permits for 10 high-capacity water wells and evaluate the environmental impact of future wells before issuing permits.

The DNR has declined to consider environmental factors since Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel issued an opinion on May 10 stating that the agency does not have the authority to do so, according to the lawsuits and the DNR's website.

The result has been widespread lake drainage and degradation of wildlife habitats, according to Clean Wisconsin, in favor of using the water for irrigation.

"These waters belong to all people of Wisconsin," Clean Wisconsin's general counsel Katie Nekola said in a statement. "By relying on the attorney general's flawed opinion, the DNR is abdicating its constitutional duty to protect the waters of our state."

The question of the DNR's duty and authority first arose in 2006 after it granted a town a permit to operate a high-capacity well.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that the DNR's duty to protect public waterways required it to consider potential harmful effects before granting a well permit.

Around the same time, the Republican-controlled state legislature passed 2011 Wisconsin Act 21, which forbid regulatory agencies from imposing conditions stricter than those laid out in state law.

State lawmakers asked Schimel to apply the opinion and state law to high-capacity well permits issued by the DNR, which he did in his May opinion.

"The constitution vested in the state a duty to keep navigable waters in trust for the citizens of the state," the attorney general wrote. "Nowhere in the constitution is there language delegating that duty to the DNR."

The Division of Hearings and Appeals disagreed in a 2014 opinion, according to the complaints, and asserted the DNR must go beyond considering the individual impact of each well.

"It is scientifically unsupported, and impossible as a practical matter, to manage water resources if cumulative impacts are not considered," the division concluded, according to Clean Wisconsin's lawsuits, which were filed in Dane County Circuit Court.

A spokesperson for the Wisconsin Department of Justice declined to comment on the lawsuits.

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