Landmark Studies on Central Sands Pumping Impacts

Wisconsin Central Sands groundwater conditions and the effects of high capacity well pumping on lakes and streams have been well studied for more than a half century. Here is a sampling of foundational and historically important studies and publications.

“Streamflow Depletion by Wells” – 2012. This general publication does a great job of laying out the science of groundwater, surface water, and pumping. Nicely illustrated, and often written at non-technical level, the piece is useful for explaining pumping impacts.

“Hydrology of the Little Plover River Basin … and the Effects of Water Resource Development” – 1965. This renowned USGS publication has even resulted in a movie still being shown to budding hydrologists at Colleges and Universities! Three noteworthy items in the study are: (1) proving that groundwater and streams are connected by intentionally pumping a high capacity well until a section of the river ran dry; (2) estimating streamflow depletion from the amount of pumping that existed in the early 60s; and (3) determining how much the Little Plover streamflows would suffer from increasing groundwater pumping development.


“Effects of Irrigation on Stream flow in the Central Sand Plain”– 1971. Another great-grand-daddy of central sands high capacity well impact work, it was the earliest that predicted widespread lake and stream impacts if irrigation pumping were to go unmanaged. The Plainfield area lakes and streams were the epicenter of this work. The authors built tools that could have been used at the time for managing groundwater if proactive thinkers had gotten ahead of the curve.

“Knowledge Development for Groundwater Withdrawal … around the Little Plover River…” 2009. The first of more recent studies on pumping impacts in the Central Sands, funded by DNR. It concluded that the Little Plover low flows and dry-ups of the mid-2000s were even lower than flows during historic droughts of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Groundwater pumping was found as the cause of stressed Little Plover flows, with irrigation being the main pumping influence, followed by Village of Plover and the Whiting wellfield.


“Groundwater Pumping Effects on Groundwater Levels, Lake Levels, and Streamsflows in the Wisconsin Central Sands.” 2010. The second study of the modern era and the first that concretely demonstrated the impacts of groundwater pumping on the entirety of the central sands. Funding was provided by DNR, with scientific peer review provided by university, Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, and USGS scientists.

“Irrigation Effects in the Northern Lake States: Wisconsin Central Sands Revisited” 2012. Published in the international scientific journal Ground Water, this study summarized and added to the 2009 and 2010 Little Plover and Central Sands studies described above.

“Sustaining Central Sands Water Resources” 2014. A literature review completed by a UW-Madison graduate student. It concludes that many studies predicted or demonstrated that central sands groundwater pumping is affecting lake and stream levels, and no studies found other causes.

“A Groundwater Flow Model for the Little Plover River…” 2017.  A DNR funded study that confirmed 2009 Little Plover study conclusions and built modeling tools that could be used to manage groundwater pumping to achieve healthy flows. This was to be “the last study that we’ll need,” according to the then Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association Executive Director, for them to believe that groundwater pumping would result in streamflow depletion.

“Central Sands Lakes Study” 2021 UNDER CONSTRUCTION. When the Growers got their “forever permits” in 2017 Act 10, the sole bright spot was a study that was to include much of Central Wisconsin, 20 lakes, and dozens of stream miles. But the work of “three powerful lobbyists,” according to DNR staff, had the study limited to only three lakes (Long, Plainfield, and Pleasant). Nonetheless, the CSLS is a solid and honest scientific effort by a talented staff at DNR and scientists with national and international reputations, and might be the most ambitious groundwater research project in Wisconsin’s history. The study outcomes will likely be crucial to protecting our lakes and streams and wetlands from unlimited high capacity well pumping.