By Don Behm
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
MILWAUKEE - In one year, Wisconsin power plants, municipalities, large farmers, papermakers and other industries take more than 2 trillion gallons of water out of lakes, rivers and underground aquifers.
The total of 2 trillion plus 155 billion gallons is more water than the annual flow of the Wisconsin River at the Wisconsin Dells. It is more than three times the volume contained in Lake Winnebago, the state's largest inland lake. And it is enough to fill 139 billion half-barrels. Businesses and municipalities with water intakes or wells capable of withdrawing 100,000 gallons of water per day are required to report annual use to the state Department of Natural Resources. The inventory taking shape could be used by water-intensive industries seeking suitable locations in Wisconsin, and it could help resolve water quantity disputes within watersheds, said Eric Ebersberger, the department's water use section chief in Madison. Surface water - readily available along the shores of lakes Michigan and Superior, the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers as well as other streams and inland lakes - is tapped for 90 percent of everyone's water needs. State power utilities, communities and businesses pumped out a waterfall-sized flow of 1 trillion plus 942 billion gallons in 2011, the most recent statewide data available. Groundwater from aquifers - water-bearing layers of sand and gravel near the surface or bedrock at greater depths - is not as easily accessible but these resources were tapped by wells for more than 213 billion gallons in 2011, according to a water use report released by the state Department of Natural Resources. Aquifers supplied 10 percent of state water demand. Compliance with the 5 -year-old reporting mandate under the regional Great Lakes protection compact and a state high-capacity well law has increased each year. In 2011, for the first time, more than 90 percent of the targeted systems responded. This unprecedented detail will help regulators, businesses and communities make better decisions in managing the resources and promoting sustainable use, Ebersberger said. (EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE) POWER PLANTS The largest users by far of the state's lakes and rivers are 30 power plants with total withdrawals of more than 1.6 trillion gallons in 2011 - 84.6 percent of all surface water used in the state in a year. We Energies' Oak Creek power plant, with six generating units, uses more than all others, reporting withdrawals of more than 582.9 billion gallons from Lake Michigan in 2011, according to Bob Smail, a DNR water supply specialist who reviews all water use reports. The volume is more than one-third of all power plant withdrawals. Most of the water is used to cool and condense steam after it has passed through a turbine to generate electricity, a utility spokesman said. The cooling water is returned to the lake. The steam condenses to water and is sent back to boilers, where it is reheated and turned to steam in this nonstop loop. The utility's Oak Creek and Valley Power Plant in Milwaukee are the reason Milwaukee County is ranked No. 1 for surface water withdrawals. Ranked second is Manitowoc County, home to the Point Beach Nuclear Power Plant and its cooling water needs. Point Beach withdraws and returns more than 230.8 billion gallons of water a year from Lake Michigan, Smail said. PAPER PRODUCTION Wisconsin's 49 paper production companies make up the second largest group of surface water users. Papermakers took more than 121.2 billion gallons from lakes and rivers, or a little more than 6.2 percent of the surface water total for the year. Third place was occupied by 40 municipal water suppliers using lakes or rivers. They distributed nearly 104.8 billion gallons of water in 2011, just shy of 5.4 percent of the total surface water withdrawal. The City of Milwaukee's Water Works leads this group with total withdrawals from Lake Michigan of more than 39.1 billion gallons in 2011, Smail said. The Water Works serves Milwaukee and 15 other communities and most of the water it distributes to customers is returned to the lake in the form of treated wastewater. Not far behind is Manitowoc. Its water utility withdraws nearly 25.3 billion gallons a year from Lake Michigan to meet demands of its customers in Manitowoc and Brown counties, according to the DNR report. There are 1,625 municipal wells in the state capable of pumping 100,000 gallons or more per day. This group accounts for the largest volume of annual groundwater withdrawals: more than 89.9 billion gallons in 2011, or 42.2 percent of the total. Chief among them is Madison in Dane County. The city reported total withdrawals of nearly 10.4 billion gallons in 2011, Smail said. La Crosse placed second with 3.88 billion gallons of aquifer withdrawals, followed closely by Eau Claire at 3.86 billion gallons.