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Major state study finds sources of green, stinky Wisconsin River pollution
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Major state study finds sources of green, stinky Wisconsin River pollution

Petenwell Lake waters

The state is detailing sources upper Wisconsin River pollution, but existing laws lack mechanisms to stop farm runoff that is the main cause of Wisconsin's most widespread water quality problem. Above, the pea-soup waters of Petenwell Lake lap the shoreline in this photo taken in Adams County on Aug. 19, 2011. The waters of both Petenwell and Castle Rock lakes are prone to blooms of toxic bacteria called blue-green algae.

Wisconsin has detailed the sources of unnatural green growths of vegetation and bacteria that stink up long stretches of the upper Wisconsin River amid cottages, homes and campgrounds.

The study — the largest of its kind in Wisconsin — details how and where sources of phosphorus pollution would need to be reduced to return the waters to a healthy state.

However, there isn’t a sure path to meeting that goal because existing laws don’t mandate that agricultural polluters take action to meet water-quality standards, and government doesn’t fully fund programs to help farmers make improvements voluntarily.

The state Department of Natural Resources has scheduled a series of public meetings next month to describe its draft study of the river basin from Lake Wisconsin to Vilas County. The study covers about 9,156 square miles, or 15 percent of the state.

“This effort has spanned almost eight years and builds on previous watershed work conducted in the basin,” said Kevin Kirsch, a DNR water resources engineer who is managing the project.

The river basin encompasses or touches parts of 21 counties. It includes 109 stretches of streams and rivers and 38 lakes or reservoirs — such as Petenwell Flowage and Castle Rock — whose use is impaired because they are polluted with the nutrient phosphorus.

Farm nutrients carried by rain and snowmelt are the main source of Wisconsin’s most widespread lake and stream pollution problem.

After the Clean Water Act was enacted in the 1970s, nutrient pollution from industry and sewage plants was sharply reduced under strict federal standards, but agricultural pollution is addressed largely by voluntary grant programs. Grants are available to farmers who want to determine how much they are polluting and to reduce the harm by limiting disposal of manure on fields or through changes in planting practices.

The DNR’s study of the Wisconsin River basin is mandated by Clean Water Act provisions requiring states to list water bodies whose use is impaired by pollution, detail its sources and suggest limits on future pollution.

“There is still much work to be done to achieve water-quality standards and reduce algae blooms and the other negative impacts associated with excess phosphorus loadings,” said Sharon Gayan, director of the DNR water quality bureau.

The DNR has developed plans for several other watersheds and encouraged partnerships aimed at solutions.

In some areas, farmers have formed to publicize pollution-reducing practices and encourage others in their industry to join.

Taking that a step further, the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District has been coordinating efforts to pool money from local governments to reduce farm runoff. A strict timetable has been created for meeting state standards under a provision of state law allowing limits on farm runoff to be added to the sewer plant’s water pollution permit.

More programs like that one, changes in laws, and more money for voluntary measures are needed so that all sources of pollution are brought fully under control, said Adam Sodersten, spokesman for the Madison-based Clean Lakes Alliance.

“Most importantly it will take a transformational and cultural shift in how we approach lake health” like the societal shift to recycling and composting that took place decades ago, Sodersten said.

The upper Wisconsin River study includes Lake Wausau, Big Eau Pleine Reservoir, Lake Du Bay and Lake Delton.

For more information on next month’s public meetings and how to comment on the plan, go to


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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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