America’s Most Endangered Rivers for 2013: Little Plover River


River update:

At Risk: Fish habitat and water supply
Threat: Outdated water management

Little Plover River, WI | Amy Thorstenson, Friends of the Little Plover River

Ask Wisconsin’s Governor and Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources to enforce the Public Rights Flow of the Little Plover River.

The Little Plover River flows six miles from clear, cold headwater springs before joining the Wisconsin River. However, dramatic increases in groundwater withdrawals have reduced river flows. Once prized for native brook trout and popular with anglers, the river’s flow has decreased to levels that threaten the persistence of fish populations. In the past decade, portions of the Little Plover River were repeatedly sucked dry, making the river the unfortunate poster child for Wisconsin’s inadequate groundwater management. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources must adequately manage High Capacity Water Wells to safeguard the Little Plover and other rivers and lakes across the state.

The Threat

First Dry up of Little Plover River, WI – 2005 | Barb Feltz, Friends of the Little Plover River

Today the Little Plover River is under great stress and its story has become a sad cautionary tale.  Since shallow groundwater sources often provide water to rivers, High Capacity Wells (with a pump capacity of 100,000 or more gallons per day) can have as much or more impact on river flow than surface pipes directly drawing water from the river.  Taking water from all directions can cause rivers to run dry if enough water is withdrawn.  Models based on 60 years of data show reductions in flow in the Little Plover River beginning in the mid-1970’s, with more than half the historic flow missing by 2006.  This reduction mirrors the more than doubling of the number of irrigation wells, which now account for about 85% of water withdrawals in the Little Plover Basin since 1980; it is compounded by municipal and industrial wells pulling from the same source.

The Little Plover River, along with several lakes in the Central Sands region, has been the most visible victim of poor groundwater management, but the problem is statewide.  Wisconsin is a water-rich state, but groundwater, the water source for 70% of the population and over 90% of water used for farming and industry, is limited.  Wisconsin law leaves streams, lakes, and wetlands unprotected from excessive groundwater pumping, and does not require consideration of the impacts of High Capacity Wells and their cumulative effects on groundwater supply or groundwater-dependent surface waters except in limited circumstances.  Nearly all water resources are left high and dry by current law, and there is no mechanism to restore water to clearly impacted resources such as the Little Plover River.

What Must Be Done

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) must enforce public flow orders for the Little Plover River.  In 2006, a task force of stakeholders facilitated by the DNR was formed to address excessive groundwater pumping that was causing low stream flows and ultimately drying up the river and impacting the ability to sustain healthy fish populations.  The establishment of public rights flows (PRF) for the Little Plover was a direct byproduct of the deliberations of the task force.  The PRF, or water level necessary to protect public rights and interests, may not be lowered.  This means that lower flows, where they can be attributed to excessive groundwater pumping, must be restored by better managing that pumping.  Without enforcement, however, the PRF is ignored, pumping is not regulated and managed, and the river is in danger of running dry, while High Capacity Well permitting continues unabated with little, if any, oversight.

Wisconsin DNR needs to develop and implement management plans for maintaining adequate water flows and regulate High Capacity Wells throughout the state in order to protect other water users and the environment from overuse.  The state has ignored the impact of High Capacity Wells for long enough.  It is time to take the interests of local residents, fish, and wildlife into account and find a balance between development of High Capacity Wells and healthy river flows, before Wisconsin loses its waters and its natural heritage.