MADISON — A unanimous Wisconsin Supreme Court decision released this morning upholds the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ authority to protect all waters in the state, including groundwater.
At stake in Lake Beulah v. DNR was whether the DNR had authority to consider the impact pumping groundwater has on lakes, rivers and streams. In a 7-0 decision released this morning, the Court found that the DNR has both the authority and the duty to consider the environmental impact of pumping large quantities of groundwater.
“We conclude that… the DNR has the authority and general duty to consider whether a proposed high capacity well may harm waters of the state,” reads the decision written by Justice Patrick Crooks. “We further hold that to comply with this general duty, the DNR must consider the environmental impact of a proposed high capacity well when presented with sufficient concrete, scientific evidence of potential harm to waters of the state.”
At issue was whether the DNR should have considered effects to Lake Beulah before issuing a permit for the Village of East Troy to construct a high capacity municipal well. Opponents of the permit argued that the DNR should have considered effects to Lake Beulah, pursuant to its public trust obligations. The public trust doctrine establishes that Wisconsin’s waters are a shared resource, and it is the state’s duty to protect them for all residents.
“Today’s decision confirms that the public trust doctrine is alive and well in Wisconsin,” said Melissa Malott, attorney and water program director at Clean Wisconsin. “The DNR’s authority to manage groundwater is integral to its duty to protect our lakes, rivers and streams.”
High capacity wells pump hundreds of thousands of gallons of water every day. If improperly located or managed, these wells can draw down groundwater levels, causing water levels to fall in nearby streams or lakes. In extreme circumstances, excessive pumping can cause streams and lakes to dry up, as has happened to the Little Plover River and several central Wisconsin lakes.
“Our groundwater and surface waters are intimately connected, and it is impossible to protect our lakes, rivers and streams without properly managing our groundwater,” said Malott. “This decision is a victory for the millions of Wisconsin residents and visitors who enjoy our state’s waters.”