The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has recently issued a highly controversial permit to Perrier Group of America (Perrier) for high capacity wells in central Wisconsin for a commercial spring-water bottling operation. Despite two county boards, five Townships and several citizens referenda urging Perrier to abandon its plans and calling on the DNR to undertake a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), the permit was issued on September 20th. The wells, to be located adjacent to “Big Spring” near New Haven, Wisconsin, would draw up to 500 gallons per minute, or 500,000 gallons per day year-round, from the spring.
In defense of its issuance of the permit, the DNR responded that it has no authority to deny a permit based on adverse environmental impacts alone; rather, DNR must and will approve such a permit only if there is no impact on public water supplies. DNR is not obligated to undertake a full EIS study. Furthermore, the DNR indicated that the level of protection stipulated in the permit is unprecedented in the state’s history. From the DNR press release of September 21, “This conditional approval and accompanying agreement…assure us that nearby groundwater, wetlands, creek, springs and other surface waters won’t be harmed by the operation of Perrier’s proposed wells. None of the 9,400 high capacity well applications previously approved in Wisconsin contain provisions to protect nearby groundwater or surface waters.” The permit provides that “no production well can be constructed until pumping rates and well locations are established by the Department assuring that there will be ‘no significant adverse impact to groundwater, surface waters or wetlands.’ These pumping rates and locations will be established only after extensive groundwater, wetlands and aquatic resources studies have been completed.”
Citizen groups from the area, environmentalists, a local Indian tribe and the Wisconsin Attorney General’s office disagree. The impacts discussed in the final Environmental Assessment issued by the DNR were not based on actual high-level pumping tests, but rather on modest short-term pumping trials and theoretical modeling. Several rare fen wetlands are found near Big Spring. The citizen groups argue that the impact to the area’s water resources is still unknown, and no permit should have been issued without this prior knowledge. The DNR is criticized for not engaging the “public trust” doctrine to protect the state’s water resources. Attorney General James Doyle, in a letter to DNR Secretary George Meyer, suggests that the Department of Justice might bring a public nuisance action against the DNR to protect water resources. Several citizen groups have also hinted of a lawsuit. The Ho Chunk Nation has recently indicated that it would join a local group, “Waterkeepers of Wisconsin” in fighting the proposed water withdrawal and bottling plant.