Wisconsin Caroline Lake Ashland County

Photo © Codi Kozacek / Circle of Blue
Caroline Lake sits near the Lake Superior shore in northern Wisconsin. The state is one of many east of the Mississippi River confronting unsustainable groundwater use. Click image to enlarge.

When it pulled back from the North American mid-continent roughly 10,000 years ago, the Laurentide Ice Sheet left the state of Wisconsin a lovely basket of geological parting gifts: rich soils, sculpted terrain, and a dimpled landscape.

The glacial retreat laid the foundation for Antigo silt loam, the official state soil and an asset still drawn upon by farmers in north-central Wisconsin. Glacial floods sliced open the cliffs of the Dells, a popular mid-state tourist attraction. Soon after the glaciers receded, the dimples filled with water and formed many of Wisconsin’s 15,000 lakes.

Today, a hydrological reversal is taking place. Some of the lakes are shrinking, victims of high-capacity groundwater wells that pump more than 378,000 liters (100,000 gallons) per day and are used by big farms, dairies, and companies mining silica sand for use in the fracking industry. The state Legislature is discussing the matter. Lawmakers introduced three bills this session that seek, in various ways, to preserve Wisconsin’s waterscape.

“We have to accept that navigable waters have been impacted and we have to act,” said Rep. Scott Krug, a Republican who co-sponsored one of the bills, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.

It is unfamiliar territory for the damp state, but Wisconsin has plenty of company in that regard. Depleted groundwater tables, shrinking lakes, and faltering rivers — problems most commonly associated with the dry American West — are spreading eastward.

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