Both major political parties are holding their collective breath these days waiting to see whether Wisconsin will be a red state or a blue state in November, but everybody knows what color it is now. It’s a brown state.

            Lawns and fields everywhere have gone drab thanks to this summer’s record setting drought. We’ve lost grass and corn at a frightening rate, and we’ve lost something even more precious that may never come back. We’ve lost ground water. And when that happens, our lakes and streams can never be safe.

            In some parts of the state, stream flows have fallen five to ten per cent this summer. Those are the lucky parts. In the Central Sands region, scientists say it’s been more like 60%. And it’s no coincidence that Portage, Waushara and Adams Counties rank first, second and fourth among the counties that pump the most water for irrigation.   

            On a typical irrigated field, as much as a foot of water has been taken out of the aquifer this year, and that translates to dropping water levels in some places by up to three feet. The US Geological Survey well at Hancock was going down an inch every two days during irrigation season.

            So where does all that water go? The simple answer is “away.” For a more complicated response, we turn to an expert.

 George Kraft, Ph.D., is a professor of water resources at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point. He’s also the director of the Center for Watershed Science and Education, and the director of the Central Wisconsin Groundwater Center, so he’s clearly qualified to point us in the right direction.

            “We get an average of 30 to 32 inches of rain around here,” he explains, “and we don’t get very much run-off. Mostly the plants suck it up through the roots and send, in rough numbers, 20 inches back up into the atmosphere and then about 10 inches percolate past the roots and become ground water and eventually stream fall. The lakes are kind of just holes that go beneath the water table, and the ground water is filling them, too.”

            It would seem then that if two-thirds of the rain goes back into the atmosphere and the other third goes into the ground, we wind up breaking even. But that’s not how it works, according to Dr. Kraft, because the water that goes up here comes down somewhere else, usually hundreds of miles away. Our rain comes from different places, and there hasn’t been nearly enough of it lately.

            “I think about the aquifer being like a bank account, except it’s storing water,” Kraft said. “And we’re taking more water out of this bank account than we’re putting in during a very dry time.”

            In other words, we’re overdrawn when it comes to ground water, and the prospect of getting even again down the road are pretty grim.

Asked how long it would take to recover what we’ve lost of our water table if we were to have average rain fall, Kraft said, “It would takes years. What we’ve seen over the last two to four decades is a steady decline. It’s very steady, but gradual. At the Hancock well, we figure the aquifer is about three and half feet down compared to where it should be, but that’s happened over two decades. It’s not a straight path. It’s kind of a wobbly one. There was USGS work that warned of this exact thing in the sixties.”

But we never seem to learn. If we don’t reverse the trend toward vanishing ground water, Kraft says we can expect to see more harmed lakes and streams all over the state. “And by harmed,” he said, “I mean, you don’t have to dry something up before it’s harmed.”

No, you just have to keep bouncing those checks.