Number of polluted waters in state, counties continue to rise
The proposed EPA Impaired Waters List for 2016 in Wisconsin contains 1,694 listings, more than double the 761 approved for the list in 2004.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has recommended an additional 209 waterways for the 2016 list. Every two years, under section 303 of the federal Clean Water Act, the EPA requires states to publish a list of all waters that are not meeting water quality standards.
“I was astonished that the list has increased like this and, more than that, I am dismayed,” said Dean Hoegger, president and executive director of the Clean Water Action Council of Northeast Wisconsin.
Many environmentalists say that the number of polluted waterways proposed for the list that flow into Lake Michigan is particularly alarming because of the Great Lakes’s importance as the largest source of fresh water in the world, supplying drinking water and recreational opportunities for millions of people.
In Kewaunee County, two miles of the Kewaunee River and Marsh are proposed to be added to the 2016 list for total phosphorus levels that exceed water quality standards. Two unnamed streams are also newly listed, one for excess phosphorus and one for an unknown pollutant.
The Kewaunee River joins the East Twin, Ahnapee, and Red rivers, which were listed for excess phosphorus in 2014, and the Neshota River in Brown and Kewaunee counties that was added for excessive phosphorus in 2012.
In Manitowoc County, 44 waterways are listed, including more than 10 proposed new listings. In Brown County 35 waterways appear on the proposed list, while Door County has eight listings.
Phosphorus pollution increases
Fifty-six percent of the proposed new listings are for total phosphorus that exceed water quality standards of the Clean Waters Act, according to Francisco Arcaute, a spokesperson for the EPA. He noted that increases in Wisconsin’s nutrient-related listings are attributable, in part, to new 2010 numeric criteria for phosphorus.
“On one hand, we have done a really great job of working with industry to reduce phosphorus levels, but on the other hand nothing is being done to control non-point sources of phosphorus,” Hoegger said. “There has been a lack of effort to control non-point phosphorus pollution, primarily from farm fields.”
Phosphorus and nitrogen are blamed for much of the algae growth in Green Bay and Lake Michigan that has impacted fishing, drinking water and recreation, as well as caused the deterioration of water quality at Great Lakes beaches.
Primary sources of phosphorus are wastewater from sewage treatment plants and septic systems, storm sewers and livestock manure that runs off from croplands and pastures or discharges from animal feeding operations or concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), according to the EPA. Wildlife, such as geese, and runoff from forest lands are natural sources of phosphorus.
Lake Michigan beaches impacted
Human, livestock, and wildlife feces can also contaminate surface and groundwater with E. coli. Kewaunee’s Selner Beach was listed in 2006 for E. coli and Manitowoc’s Fisher Park Beaches are proposed to be added this year for E. coli, giving Manitowoc County five impaired beaches that limit swimming for residents and tourists.
“The non-point sources are very difficult to mitigate,” said Kimberly Busse, laboratory manager of the Environmental Research and Innovation Center at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, which manages the monitoring and restoration of many Lake Michigan beaches. “We don’t encourage swimming at some of these beaches.”
She says, however, that Wisconsin has done a better job than many other states in trying to mitigate its Great Lakes beaches.
Steven R. Corci with the U. S. Geological Survey, who recently was one of the authors of an article on human and bovine viruses and bacteria at Great Lakes beaches that was published this year in “Environmental Science and Technology,” said that when polluted rivers flow into Lake Michigan they affect the beaches closest to the outlets of the rivers first and then the pollution becomes more diluted as it moves farther from the river.
His 2010 study found that it was pollution from both human sewage and bovine viruses that was responsible for most of the contamination at three Lake Michigan beaches.
Agricultural growth blamed
Critics of Gov. Scott Walker blame the increased pollution in many agricultural counties like Brown, Kewaunee and Manitowoc on his promotion of new jobs in dairy and other agriculture that pollute waterways with runoff from livestock manure, fertilizers, pesticides and byproducts of cheese manufacturing. They claim that Walker has cut the DNR budget to such a low level that, they say, it is nearly impossible for its staff to monitor agriculture runoff that is creating the high levels of phosphorus and nitrogen in the state’s waters.
“Agriculture is not doing their part,” Hoegger said. He said that he was out in Kewaunee County after a heavy rainfall in December and saw that the Kewaunee River was dark brown. He alleged that he saw that farmers were not using buffer zones near streams or other agricultural practices to control soil and manure runoff as should be required by the DNR.
“We know that Lake Michigan already has many years of too much phosphorus stored in the lake,” he said. “A large portion of this is coming from agriculture in the Fox Valley and surrounding areas.”
In addition to the Kewaunee County rivers, 17 miles of the West Twin River in Manitowoc County are proposed for the list for excess phosphorus in 2016, as is Mud Creek and the south branch of the Manitowoc River for unknown pollutants. Sugar Creek in Door County was added to the list in 2014 for excess phosphorus.
Several inland lakes in Manitowoc County are proposed for the 2016 impaired list, including Gass Lake, Harpt Lake and Hartlaub Lake. Carstens Lake was added in 2014 and Boot Lake is proposed to be added in 2016, both for for excess phosphorus.
In Brown, Kewaunee and Manitowoc counties, environmentalists and other residents say that in spite of the excess phosphorus in river and lake watersheds where large dairy operations are located, the DNR has failed to limit or deny additional pollution permits to these agricultural operations or place a moratorium on the number of cows to limit excess manure spreading.
Kewaunee County has 16 CAFOs, Manitowoc has 16, Brown County has 20 and Door County has one.
The large amounts of manure spread on farm fields by CAFOS is a major reason for the polluted rivers in Kewaunee, Manitowoc and Brown counties, says Dick Swanson, a member of Kewaunee County’s groundwater task force.
“This water pollution is not going to go away because more CAFO permits are scheduled to be issued in these counties,” said Swanson. “The DNR has never turned down a CAFO permit.”
Dr. William Faller of Kewaunee said that he became aware of the detrimental effects of spreading liquid manure when a Kewaunee County CAFO operator spread an estimated 150 tank loads of manure on 160 acres adjacent to 76 acres he owns on Krok Road at the headwaters of the East Twin River.
“Nutrient management plans as they are formulated by the Wisconsin DNR and large agricultural interests and implemented by county soil and water departments do not prevent the contamination of surface and ground water,” said Faller, who has taken independent water tests after the spreading to confirm the contamination of the East Twin River watershed and a wildlife pond on his property.
Arcaute said that the EPA has conducted a number of inspections of dischargers, including several in Kewaunee County, and will continue to correct any noncompliance that is identified. In 2015, the agency fined a Kewaunee County CAFO, Hall’s Calf’s Ranch, $42,000 for discharging wastewater into the East Twin River without a permit.
“The EPA will also continue to work with the WDNR to evaluate their NPDES (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) permitting and compliance programs for CAFOs throughout the state, including Kewaunee County,” he said.
Gordon Speirs, president of the Dairy Business Association, says that the water pollution issues are complex and there is no one answer.
“They (dairy farmers) recognize their role in finding solutions,” said Speirs. “This is why you see farmers involved on government study groups. This is why you see the use of more things like cover crops that hold nutrients in place. This is why you see more sharing of other innovative ideas among farmers such as water recycling technology.”
Tourism and property values suffer
Residents say that the polluted water is hurting tourism and property values.
“There used to be dozens of trout fisherman that came around here every season; they don’t come here anymore,” said Joe Musil, who owns land on the East Twin River, which was listed as a Class I and II trout stream a decade ago and has allegedly been polluted by large dairy farm operations in the area and industry upstream.
“The news about our water issues does have an impact on how Kewaunee County is viewed and this, in turn, can impact our property values and our ability to attract new residents, new businesses and create tourism,” said Lee Luft, a county supervisor and chairman of Kewaunee County’s Groundwater Task Force. “While no one likes to hear about problems in the places we call home, I believe it is absolutely critical that our residents be informed about the size and scope of our water problems.”
In spite of the increased EPA Impaired Waters Listings, DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp said that Wisconsin surface water quality is good and improving in many areas.
She said that the addition of 209 new waters to the EPA list this year is a step to identify new waterways that will be targeted for pollution reduction plans.
“Before you can solve a problem, you have to identify it and acknowledge that it exists,” said Stepp. “The good news is we are doing that by listing these new waterways so we can start working to restore them to their natural quality.”
Once a waterway is on the Impaired List, the EPA requires that a Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL) plan be completed for the waterway or segment of waterway. A TMDL is a pollution budget and includes a calculation of the maximum amount of a pollutant that can occur in a waterbody, and allocates the necessary reductions to one or more pollutant sources.
A TMDL serves as a planning tool and potential starting point for restoration or protection activities with the ultimate goal of attaining or mantaining water quality standards.
But federal guidance recommends that TMDLs be developed within 8-13 years of listing, according to Arcaute. The majority of the 1,695 waters on the Wisconsin list have no plans or funding allocated for a TMDL. Once the TMDL plan is completed, it can take decades to put it in place depending on available state and federal funding.
The DNR has not approved or funded any new TMDLs since 2013, according to George Althoff, communications director for the DNR. TMDLs are generally funded by the state, however federal funds, when available, have been used to support the state’s TMDL development efforts, said Arcaute.
In addition, the state has not funded TMDLs for Manitowoc or Kewaunee watersheds and Rep. Joel Kitchens said he was recently turned down by the DNR when he requested a TMDL for the Ahnapee River watershed.
Althoff said that the agency does anticipate completing TMDLs they had already begun for for the Fox/Wolf, Milwaukee and Wisconsin river basins within two years, which will address approximately 280 waterbody listings.
He noted that 165 waterways have been taken off the Impaired Waters List.
“The best plan is not to pollute the waters in the first place,” Swanson said.
But that won’t address the concerns of many beach lovers along Lake Michigan.
“We’ve had complaints on both sides of the peninsula about algae accumulation on the beach,” said Greg Coulthurst, conservationist with the Door County Soil and Water Department. “Controlling the phosphorus is the biggest thing we can do.”
James Olson, a Sturgeon Bay resident, said that he believes that his favorite beach on Lake Michigan’s east shore in Door County has been polluted by algae growth caused by the phosphorus pollution coming from rivers in Kewaunee and Manitowoc counties.
Lake Michigan currents can flow north or south off the shores of these two counties, depending on a number of factors, Corci said.
“I grew up here and the water was always clear on this beach,” he said. “Now you have to walk through green algae all over the beach and then wade through it to swim – and it smells.”
Arcaute says that any suspected non-compliance with Wisconsin environmental laws should be reported to the DNR and reports can be made confidentially. The hotlines for reporting suspected violations are 1-800-TIP-WDNR or 1-800-847-9367. Citizens may also contact EPA’s customer service line at 1-800-621-8431.
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press Gazette: Number of polluted waters in state, counties continue to rise