I rarely think about The Agriculturalist, a publication aimed at the farming community. Other than a relative recently talking about how Grandpa Schwarz read it, which brought back memories of seeing it in their rural farmhouse, I had not thought about it for decades. But this week someone who knows about my interest in groundwater issues in the Hancock area, the place I grew up, made me aware of a story about farming and irrigation in that long-forgotten source for farming information.
The story centered on Jim Bacon who farms 6,050 owned and rented acres with his family near Hancock in central Wisconsin. There is no need to remind readers why farmers are an essential sector of our economy. I have long championed farmers for the part they serve with international relations as their products are very much a part of diplomatic underpinnings with other nations through, as an example, massive grain and beef sales. But farmers also have a deep responsibility for the land and the groundwater which allows them success and profits.
Farmers in the Central Sands rely heavily on irrigation to grow crops on very sandy soils. One hundred percent of the land the Bacons farm is irrigated with 60 center pivots.
Bacon is grateful for irrigation, adding, “We need the water to farm, and we need to manage it properly for future generations.”
I was truly pleased that Bacon added that managing water for future generations is important. Because it is! I would have liked to know more about his thinking and what practices he undertakes to meet his desires for the future. That would have seemed a logical progression of the news story. But the reporter/writer for The Agriculturalist did not seem to inquire of Bacon what that type of managing entails or write one line about the negative impact of high-capacity wells.
There is another side to this story from Fran O’Leary, of course, and it deals with the overuse of irrigation for the profits of large farming businesses.
In the area where I grew up the conversation about high-capacity irrigation wells has taken on a louder and more robust tone over the past decade. It is pitting farmers against those who wish for more considerate and wise use of natural resources. The numbers speak for themselves when looking at the menacing side of these wells. In the early 1950s, there were fewer than 100 high-capacity wells in the Central Sands, while today there are more than 3,000. That is 40% of the state’s total — in just a six-county area!
In 2021, I was very pleased with the truly tremendous victory from the Wisconsin State Supreme Court for science, the environment, and the authority of experts in state agencies to craft rules (that was not a small victory, mind you) that work for all residents when they strongly affirmed the Department of Natural Resources has the authority to place permit restrictions on high-capacity wells in order to protect the state’s water. The Court had also ruled that same day about having the power to regulate through rulemaking huge livestock enterprises which pollute groundwater.
The majority Court decision, written by Justice Jill Karofsky, found the DNR “had the explicit authority” to impose both permit conditions in order to “assure compliance” with limitations on discharged waste and groundwater protection standards. Justice Rebecca Dallet wrote in the court’s majority opinion that the state Legislature “has granted the DNR the broad but explicit authority to consider the environmental effects of a proposed high capacity well.”
My concern about water issues has been a decades-long journey. I still recall the woman, in the 1990s, holding the jar of cloudy and unappealing-looking water taken from her kitchen tap in Kewaunee County prior to driving to the Madison office of her state assemblyman. What she made clear to Representative Lary Swoboda was the harmful impact the water would have on her children. She offered to leave it on my desk so I would not forget her plight.
I fondly recall biking again and again to a local lake in Hancock as a teenager, and though not knowing how to swim, loving to wade about and cool off. As an adult, it became clear that the groundwater concerns from locals were not just irrational fears but were coming from first-hand accounts of new homeowners needing to go deeper and deeper when digging a well. My dad, Royce Humphrey, had a second well, located near our garden plot near County KK, go dry when I was a young adult.
While the past two years have allowed for Hancock lakes to be very full, that does not diminish the long-term data about the groundwater and the impact of high-capacity wells in the area. The need to better regulate the permits is a necessity, given that such wells can withdraw more than 100,000 gallons of water a day from the ground.
Dad and Lary had passed away by the time the Court ruled, but I knew how pleased they would be with the rulings. Dad served 40 years as a Hancock Town Supervisor, trying to press in his low-key style the need to be mindful of natural resources. Lary, who served for 24 years in the Assembly, had wished for a more forceful ability to constrain farm runoffs into local streams. What they both understood and knew very well to be true was that wise and judicious use of the groundwater is something that requires continued vigilance.
I am glad that Bacon alluded to that idea in his statement to The Agriculturalist and only wish the reporter would have written an article that was aimed to allow for a better understanding of the issues surrounding irrigation.