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Defending the State's Ability to Regulate High-Capacity Wells

Midwest Environmental Advocates represented the Central Sands Water Action Coalition as a friend of the court in a case involving the the cumulative impact of high-capacity wells. After years of litigation, the Wisconsin Supreme Court issued a decision in July 2021 affirming the authority of the Department of Natural Resources to consider the cumulative impact of high-capacity wells before issuing water-withdrawal permits.

Case Summary

In 2016, Clean Wisconsin challenged nine high-capacity well permits issued by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), predominantly in the Central Sands region. The permits were at the center of a growing public perception that underregulated high-capacity well permits were lowering water levels of Wisconsin’s lakes and streams.

Under the administration of Governor Scott Walker, the DNR maintained that it lacked the authority to review the individual and cumulative effects of high-capacity wells on nearby waterbodies. In a 2017 ruling, a Dane County circuit court disagreed and nullified seven high-capacity well permits. 

When the decision was appealed, MEA filed a “friend of the court” brief on behalf of the Central Sands Water Action Coalition (CSWAC). We argued that the DNR’s failure to consider cumulative impacts was a violation of the agency’s constitutional obligation to protect the natural resources entrusted to the agency by the citizens of Wisconsin.

The case eventually made its way to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The court issued a decision in July 2021, affirming the decision to nullify the permits and finding that, “the DNR has both a constitutional duty and the statutory authority to consider the environmental effects of all proposed high-capacity wells.”

Skip Hansen

Central Sands Water Action Coalition

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