Dr. Darrell Long met with over 100 members of the community to answer questions last Sunday afternoon about his proposed high capacity well in Utica Township.
The meeting, hosted by the local pastoral group at the Mt. Sterling Lutheran Church, began with a request from Pastor Anna Sorenson that everyone participating try “to interpret what our neighbors say and do in the best possible light” and act with respect toward each other.
Sorenson was followed by Pastor Kent Johnson, who reiterated her appeal for understanding, reading a Bible verse encouraging all participants to consider the issue from another’s perspective.
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves,” Johnson read from Philippians 2:3.
Yet despite those admonitions, the crowd became restless as the proceedings drew out and many questions had to be restated several times with questioners holding their place in line in an effort to receive a direct answer from Long, who at times seemed to respond inconclusively or indirectly.
Long, a Lima, Ohio podiatrist, began his presentation with an introduction, describing his “salvation by the Lord Jesus” at the age of 13. He explained his salvation was followed by many missionary trips over the intervening years to Africa, where he participated in helping to supply wells to communities without a ready access to water.
After many years of witnessing this lack of water and seeing the plentiful water here, he settled upon selling water here as a means to supply money to further his missionary work in Africa, Long told the group.
“I was told that if I drilled deep enough, it would not impact the local water,” Long said at one point. “This well will draw from an aquifer that runs under Canada and the northern U.S.”
The proposed well, which would be capable of pumping water at a rate of 500 gallons per minute, initially came up for public comment to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) because of its proximity to Copper Creek, a Class 1 trout stream.
The proposed well site is approximately 550 feet from the North Branch of Copper Creek. That proximity triggered a process provided in Wisconsin law that is meant to protect those streams, by allowing public comment and requiring an environmental analysis to determine any possible adverse impacts the well might have on the stream.
The well’s stated purpose according to Long’s permit application is for supply of water “to any nearby users that may need an emergency supply of water” and for “emergency water bottling purposes, if there were to be an emergency situation that necessitated provision of bottled water.”
Conditions added by Larry Lynch, a DNR hydrogeologist, to the not-yet-approved permit would exclude use of the water for use in “commercial bottling for ultimate retail sale of the water.” Those conditions also stipulate that the water can only be hauled in bulk from the site and at no greater distance than 80 miles of the site without specific approval from the DNR.
Despite these conditions, Long repeatedly referred to his plans to bottle water.
When asked about this, Long replied that “bottling is part of the permit and always had been.”
Several attendees asked what level of water withdrawal Long planned.
“What are you going to do? What do you need to do to break even? What do you plan to do with this water,” Mary Sterling of Gays Mills asked.
“I am doing this to make a profit. I believe there is a need for bulk water throughout the state,” Long said.
Long also explained that he was already talking to a water distributor in northern Wisconsin about how to distribute water.
Responding to a concern voiced at profiting from a resource that belongs to everyone, through extraction and sales, Long replied with his own question and comment.
“Do you people pay for city water?”
Long then turned and asked Pastor Sorenson if the village made the church pay for it’s water.
“You have to pay for that,” Long continued.
Several people called out from church pews that bottled water and municipal water cannot be compared.
Longtime conservationist and director of the Gays Mills-based Community Conservation, Rob Horwich, addressed the issue of water as an open access resource. An open access resource is one that belongs to everyone and to which everyone should have access to use, according to the conservationist.
“This is a tragedy of commons we are talking about,” Horwich said. “I am not concerned with the kind of person you are, I am concerned with water. Like air, water is a finite system. You cannot take from it without it having an impact.”
As Horwich waited for a response, Long turned away to an earlier participant and resumed addressing their concerns about increased truck traffic on the local roads, saying there was no way for him to know how many trucks would be involved, as the business had not yet gotten off the ground. Long reiterated to the earlier speaker that the trucks would impact local wildlife.
“Of course it will. I didn’t mean there would be no effect,” Long added.
Horwich did not receive a response from Long.
Many attendees expressed concern that the well would impact surface waters and local wells.
“This is very emotional for me. I have never heard you mention emergency use, which is what you applied for the permit for,” Rich Housel, a neighbor to Long stated. “My concern is this is going to be bigger and bigger? How are you going to know if you harm this stream? It took 15 years for it to recover.”
“It comes back down to the controls,” Long responded.
“The DNR report states this will result in a drawdown,” Housel said.
“This won’t drawdown,” Long replied.
However, Larry Lynch, the DNR hydrogeologist responsible for reviewing and approving the permit, stated in the permit that “continuous pumping of the well at maximum pumping capacity over an extended period of time could lead to a reduction in flow….of up to nearly 40 percent….in the stream segment nearest the well property.”
Another neighbor queried Long about his response as a good neighbor. If the DNR’s evaluation that a deep well wouldn’t impact nearby wells proved incorrect, how would he, Long, respond?
“If your well goes in and something happens to my well, what will you do?” neighbor Richard Kirchoff asked.
“I won’t do anything, it won’t happen,” Long answered twice.
After Kirchoff asked a third time, Long stated he would turn the well off and make sure it wasn’t his well malfunctioning.
“I and my neighbors are 400 feet above you. All our wells are near your well. How do we draw water if you affect our wells? Water flows downhill,” Daniel Wilkerson asked.
Long responded by again stating that it would not happen.
“Your information about the aquifer is incorrect,” said Dr. Ron Ruedisili, a hydrogeologist who happens to own land near the Long property. “Our aquifer does not connect to Canada. What it does, the groundwater basin normally follows the surface topology.”
“How many monitoring wells will you have to make sure your drawdowns don’t impact the surface water?” Ruedisili continued.
“That’s up to the DNR,” Long replied. “Maybe my neighbors would like to volunteer to install monitors on their wells.”
Long suggested that the ‘Save Copper Creek’ group could help pay for monitoring since they had been successfully raising money to challenge the well.
Not everyone spoke with concerns and reservations about the well. Mt. Sterling Village President Doug Helgerson voiced his support.
“If the DNR gives you power to do this, more power to you. I’m only sorry I didn’t think of it first,” Helgerson said.
“I’m worried we’re not pumping enough water in town to keep it clean,” Helgerson continued. “We need water and air, but we also need money for everything to work.”
The final comment and question of the hour-and-a-half public meeting was from Bill Howe.
“As you take from the good earth, what are the things, the nickels and dimes you give back, to the flowers and trees, the land, of the Driftless?” Howe asked.
“Maybe I could help improve the shorelines and access, so people could get to the stream,” Long replied with several in the crowd expressing their disagreement aloud at his final comment.
“I think this issue will need more meetings to be resolved,” Pastor Sorenson said afterward. The pastoral group plans to continue facilitating a community dialogue.
The community group ‘Save Copper Creek,’ responding to Long’s visit, issued the following statement:
“We are glad Dr. Long finally agreed to meet with the community, but disappointed that he apparently still does not grasp the strong community objections to his high-capacity well. Dr. Long did not say anything that changes our opposition to his proposal. In fact, his statements reinforced our concerns when he repeatedly talked about making a profit by selling bottled water, but never mentioned using the water for local emergency purposes.
“Many of his answers were vague and evasive and showed a lack of understanding about the hydrogeology of ground and surface waters. When confronted with very real questions and concerns, Dr. Long displayed an unrealistic optimism that everything will turn out OK.
“It is also alarming that Dr. Long ignores community sentiments, but then talks about working with the community and even suggests that Save Copper Creek share some of the costs of the pumping tests and monitoring wells.”
DNR hydrogeologist Larry Lynch, contacted earlier this week, clarified the state of Long’s well permit application.
“There have been no changes made to the proposed high capacity well application or the draft conditions,” Lynch said. “Mr. Long has talked about possibly changing the stated purpose, but there has been no formal modification.”
Noting that there is no set response for how the DNR treats an altered application, Lynch explained the DNR’s reaction would depend on how significant those changes are.
“I don’t know that we would necessarily redo the full process opening it back up for public comment,” Lynch said. “It would at least mean redoing the analysis and making that available to people.”