Ruling comes as part of Adams County dairy lawsuit

MADISON — Today’s ruling makes it clear: the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has the authority to require high-capacity well owners to monitor groundwater levels. That authority came into question when an Adams County dairy sued DNR after approval to tap two new wells at a time the area already suffers from significant groundwater problems.

“Access to safe, clean water is a basic right that DNR has a duty to protect,” said Elizabeth Wheeler, staff attorney for Clean Wisconsin, the state’s largest environmental organization. “This ruling is a positive step to protect resources statewide and, importantly, in a strained area where those protections are needed badly.”

New Chester Dairy, Grand Marsh, sued after DNR approved an application for two new high-capacity wells on the condition that New Chester’s owners install equipment to monitor groundwater levels. New Chester argued that the DNR lacked authority to impose the monitoring condition. Clean Wisconsin intervened in the lawsuit earlier this year in support of DNR. Reiterating a 2011 Wisconsin Supreme Court case, Administrative Law Judge Jeffrey D. Boldt held today that “DNR should use both its expertise in water resources management and its discretion to determine whether its duty as trustee of public trust resources is implicated by a proposed high capacity well permit application, such that it must consider the environmental impact of the well or in some cases deny a permit application or include conditions in a well permit.” An upcoming hearing will determine whether the monitoring condition is reasonable.

With more than 950 documented high-capacity wells, Adams County already has significant groundwater problems. These wells have dropped the level of nearby Patrick Lake about 2 feet, and groundwater modeling shows that New Chester’s proposed wells will drop the lake level another 2 inches to 3 inches. Nearby streams will also be impacted.

“Water monitoring makes common sense,” said Wheeler. “It’s a core duty of the DNR to protect our public health.”