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Fixes come slowly for growing list of impaired lakes and streams
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Fixes come slowly for growing list of impaired lakes and streams

Lac Courte Oreilles

Cottage owners and tribal officials want the state to tighten water quality standards for Lac Courte Oreilles in Sawyer County. Kris Sivertson, a property owner on the lake, left, and Brett McConnell, an environmental specialist with the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, view a pipe that discharges water from a nearby cranberry farm. 

Environmental regulators say they are making strides in controlling runoff of farm manure and fertilizer that are the state’s most prevalent polluter of lakes and streams.

But each year, as more bodies of water are monitored and standards are written with greater precision, the state is finding hundreds of additional waters so high in phosphorus that swimming, fishing and boating are being limited due to weeds, algae and other problems.

The federal government began requiring states to regularly update their lists of impaired waters in 1998, but it has set no hard deadline for cleanups, saying only that states could take eight to 13 years to determine the sources of pollutants and how much they should be reduced.

The system moves so slowly that cottage owners around one impaired northern Wisconsin lake dug into their own pockets two years ago and paid a consulting firm $200,000 to conduct the scientific study the state would have done.

Cottage owners at Lac Courte Oreilles, a 5,100-acre lake near Hayward in Sawyer County, worried that if they waited 13 years, the spread of phosphorus-fed weeds and algae would tip their lake’s ecological balance past a point of no return.


An aerial photo shows murky water conditions along the shore of Lac Courte Oreilles. The Courte Oreilles Lake Association commissioned a scientific study on the sources of phosphorous that have spurred heavy plant and algae growth in parts of the lake.

“Once a lake gets to a certain point it spirals out of control,” said Alf Sivertson, a cottage owner whose family ties to Lac Courte Oreilles (pronounced La-KOO-deray) date to the 1920s when his grandfather started making treks from his home in La Crosse to fish for walleye and muskellunge there. “We don’t have the luxury of that kind of time.”

The lake, listed by the state as an outstanding water resource, is one of a few Wisconsin “two-story” lakes, meaning it maintains cold enough temperatures at its bottom to support whitefish and cisco, which are food sources for the walleye and muskellunge that are prized by anglers.

Last month, the Courte Oreilles Lake Association and Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, whose reservation includes one-third of the lake’s shoreline, cited the study in a petition calling for the state to use its emergency rule-making powers to set a much tighter standard for phosphorous allowed in the lake.

Lac Courte Oreilles map

It’s unlikely the state Department of Natural Resources would use the relatively quick emergency rules process, said water quality director Susan Sylvester.

However, two rules that would allow tighter standards have been going through the normal administrative rule-making process for 18 months, Sylvester said. It could be many more months, or even years, before they take effect under a 2011 law that requires business-impact studies and involves the governor and lawmakers in writing rules. Sylvester said delays could make a quick cleanup more difficult, but she said she didn’t believe problems would become irreversible.

But there’s another, possibly bigger obstacle. Even with a stricter phosphorus standard, the bulk of state and federal programs aimed at reducing synthetic fertilizer and animal manure carried by rain and snowmelt from farm fields into lakes typically are voluntary.

Musky Bay

Kris Sivertson, a member of the Courte Oreilles Lake Association, left, and Brett McConnell, an environmental specialist with the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, examine the water's edge at the lake's Musky Bay, which has been hardest hit by weeds and algae tied to nutrient runoff.

Sivertson said that despite this weakness in the law, the first step toward improving Lac Courte Orielles is the new standard, which would provide a legal basis to challenge existing practices and force landowners to reduce pollutant runoff.

“Once this is approved, all options are on the table to enforce it,” Sivertson said. “Otherwise, we lose the lake.”

Progress in combating industrial pollution

Wisconsin has made strides in improving water quality since the federal Clean Water Act was enacted in 1972.

Some stretches of the Wisconsin River were devoid of fish in those days, said Dave Marshall, who worked for the DNR at that time and who now works as an independent water quality scientist. Now, water quality and the abundance of fish are much improved, Marshall said.

State polluted water chart

Under the law, the state issued permits limiting the amount of phosphorus spilling from factories, sewage treatment plants and municipal storm sewers. From 1995 through 2013, phosphorus discharges into Wisconsin’s portion of the Mississippi River basin fell 23 percent to 3 million pounds per year, the DNR estimated. For the Lake Michigan drainage basin it was 27 percent to under 7.5 million pounds annually. (Estimates weren’t available for the Lake Superior basin.)

Recently the Legislature has sought to extend deadlines for new, specific phosphorus standards for industrial and municipal discharges, saying they were too costly. The EPA hasn’t said whether it will accept the changes.

But the vast majority of phosphorus in lakes and rivers comes not from factories or sewage systems, but from runoff, and much of that from farm fields. Unlike factories, farms don’t usually have discharge pipes where pollutant levels can easily be measured. Instead, regulators use soil tests and computer models to estimate the sources and amounts of phosphorous pollution.


Brett McConnell, an environmental specialist with the Lac Courte Oreilles Conservation Department, walks along a lakeshore berm designed to to naturally inhibit runoff into Lac Courte Oreilles near Hayward.

When a lake or stream is listed as impaired and a scientific study determines how far pollution needs to be reduced, it becomes easier for surrounding farmers to obtain grants to help them build manure storage pits or to take other measures to reduce nutrient runoff.

State law requires farms to submit plans for testing soil and limiting fertilizer spreading to reduce pollution from phosphorus, which harms surface water, as well as toxic nitrate, which is the most widespread contaminant of drinking water wells in the state.

But a November report by the state Department of Agriculture said less than one-third of the state’s 9 million crop acres are covered by the plans. Plans are filed with county conservation officers, who are responsible for encouraging farmers to enroll in voluntary programs to conserve soil and wildlife.

There is no mechanism to force farmers to follow nutrient plans, said Ken Genskow, a watershed management expert for UW-Extension.

“You’ve got about 10,000 dairy farmers and no one has the staff to monitor everything,” Genskow said. “It’s handed to the counties, but they don’t want the black hat role, because then how do they have the conversations with farmers about the environmental and wildlife issues and the other voluntary things?”

Pollution control models versus the real world

The state’s plans for reducing farm runoff hinge on scientific models that analyze water, estimate pollution sources and set goals for reductions. But those goals are built on conditions in place when the model is created, while the real world can change quickly, said Eric Booth, a UW-Madison research scientist in agronomy and civil engineering.

For example, when corn prices rise, farmers quickly switch acreage to the row crop, which is much more susceptible to runoff than others, Booth said. Extreme weather events such as heavy rain and wet springs can also increase pollutant levels beyond those specified in models, he said.

Many farmers want to protect the environment, but farms are businesses that try to keep costs down, he said.

“We all like to have relatively inexpensive food at the grocery store,” Booth said.

Lac Courte Oreilles truck

Kris Sivertson, a property owner on Lac Courte Oreilles and member of the Courte Oreilles Lake Association, views a study commissioned by the association to gauge phosphorous levels in the lake.

The DNR has stepped up monitoring to find waters whose use is impaired by phosphorus and toxins such as mercury, said spokesman George Althoff.

An agency report compiled last week estimated that 54 percent of lakes and 18 percent of river miles had been assessed for phosphorus.

By 2014, the DNR had obtained EPA approval for “total maximum daily load” studies with pollution reduction goals for about 17 percent of impaired lakes and stream segments. The 2016 list was in draft form last week.

EPA regulations recommend that states do the studies on all impaired water in time frames that are “expeditious and normally extend from eight to 13 years in length,” a spokeswoman for the federal agency said. Waters should be prioritized, with studies conducted more or less quickly based on factors including severity of pollution and availability of needed data.

Privately funded study faults agricultural runoff

Unwilling to wait, Lac Courte Oreilles lake property owners made voluntary contributions to hire LimnoTech, an environmental engineering firm based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to conduct a $200,000 pollution assessment.

The study points to agricultural runoff as the greatest single contributor of nutrients, especially discharges from cranberry growers who borrow water from the lake to irrigate the plants, make harvesting easier and protect crops in winter.

In 2004, several lakefront owners sued one grower whose fields use water from Musky Bay, a shallow section of the lake that has become increasingly clogged with weeds and algae during the summer and where muskellunge have all but stopped reproducing. Sivertson, who grew up in La Crosse and Madison and who now is a St. Paul, Minnesota-based attorney, represented the landowners, along with the state Department of Justice.

The judge in the case accepted expert testimony indicating that the cranberry grower, William Zawistowski, was adding significant amounts of nutrients to the bay, and that conditions in the bay had worsened, reducing public enjoyment of the water, but not enough to constitute a nuisance as defined by state law.

Tom Lochner, executive director of the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association, said growers have cut back on fertilizer application to give plants only what they need. Based on studies done elsewhere, Lochner said he believed the lake association exaggerated the phosphorus from the cranberry bogs.

By 2012, Zawistowski had installed a system at one of his two bogs that allows it to store and recirculate water instead of returning it to the lake, Lochner said.

Lochner said the Department of Agriculture paid for a small portion of the $50,000 to $100,000 cost.

Relations between the growers and the lake association are frayed.

“It has created a lot of hard feeling in the community,” Lochner said.

Lake association vice-president Gary Pulford said water quality will continue to worsen unless Zawistowski and other growers install similar recirculation systems for the other four bogs that empty into the lake.


Kris Sivertson, a property owner on Lac Courte Oreilles and member of the Courte Oreilles Lake Association, views cranberry bogs adjacent to the lake in Sawyer County.

Meanwhile, Pulford said, the association isn’t waiting:

Four years ago, the group paid for a temporary county employee to check every septic system around the lake. Of the 50 leaky ones, all but three or four have been fixed.

Last year the DNR and lakefront owners put together $125,000 to help install 35-foot vegetation buffers to slow runoff on 25 properties. The group is pushing for more neighbors to take the step.

The association wrote in support of an agriculture department grant that assisted a farmer who installed a lagoon to store manure when rain or freezing conditions heighten the risk that spreading it on fields will lead to runoff.

There are 12 other lakes in the watershed upstream of Lac Courte Oreilles, and the association plans to reach out to those owners and examine forestry practices that contribute to runoff, Pulford said.

Pulford is a former program manager with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. He lived in Somerset until two years ago when he retired and moved to a lake property on Musky Bay that he previously used on weekends.

Over the last year, he watched with dismay as Republicans who control state government wiped out local shoreline restrictions that were tighter than state standards for keeping nutrients out of water, including provisions of Sawyer County ordinances.

“All these shoreland zoning regulations that have evolved over the last 20 years in one fell swoop are gone,” Pulford said. “It’s the worst possible time to try to save a lake in the state of Wisconsin. But we need to be persistent. This too will change in time.”

Lac Courte Oreilles pump

A pump station at a cranberry business near Lac Courte Oreilles, is designed to return water to the lake after it has been used on the crop.


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Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.

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