Picture Lake Mendota, the scenic treasure where the sailboats glide and the students stroll. It’s big, it’s wet, and it’s all ours. Now picture it gone.

Hard to imagine, but if you can do that, you can get an idea of what’s going on underground in the Central Sands area of Wisconsin. According to the US Geological Survey, a combined 78 billion gallons of water are pumped out of Adams, Waushara and Portage Counties every year. That’s enough to empty Lake Mendota in two years. 

Of course, the water isn’t coming out of there, so the sailboats are safe for awhile. But it is coming from lakes and streams in the region, and it’s threatening the existence of some of them. For example, this summer’s drought had the Little Plover River down to a trickle, while Long Lake dried up six years ago. The list grows every year, and that won’t change until the problem is  taken seriously.

When will that happen? The experts only wish they knew.

One of those experts is UW-Stevens Point Professor George Kraft, the director of the Central Wisconsin Groundwater Center. Dr. Kraft takes a long view of the situation,  but he’s afraid most people don’t.   

“That’s something out there too far to grapple with,” he says. “Some deny it’s an issue. They don’t believe the science. They come up with very interesting ideas that the water comes from somewhere else, that it’s not connected to the lakes and streams.”

It’s mostly a local issue in central Wisconsin now, but people who study it say it’s becoming a statewide concern. Bodies of water that haven’t been harmed before will be threatened soon if something isn’t done to balance the needs of agriculture with the future of the resource.

A happy medium has been found in other places. The trick is to set minimum water levels in the lakes and manage the water table in such a way that they never go under below those levels.

“The interesting thing is we’re probably never going to lower the aquifer enough that the people who are pumping will be harmed,” said Kraft. “We may dry up every lake and stream, but all you have to do is drop the water levels a few feet to have a dry stream or a dry lake, but you might still have 60 to 70 feet of water you can pump from the aquifer.”

Not that anyone wants to dry up every lake and stream. Kraft recognizes an honest difference of opinion when he sees one, and he counsels patience. “You have to give the people using the resource some adjustment time,” he said. “We’re not going to do this in one year.

“I think of it as ‘What would Jesus do?’ I would make our pumping policies for groundwater consistent with ones we already have in place for direct surface withdrawals and look to manage the resource so that we can have the maximum amount of water for economic enterprise consistent  with having healthy surface water.”

A reasonable approach. Like Lake Mendota, it holds a lot of water.