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Waters of Wisconsin Program Blog


Taking on Water Challenges at the Proper Scale

Tue, 10/14/2014 - 10:29am -- Jane Elder

Welcome! This is the first of what will be many pieces on how different people relate to our shared waters. Here at the Wisconsin Academy, playing a role in our Waters of Wisconsin (WOW) Initiative is one of the most exciting parts of my job. This blog is designed to bring together stakeholders across geography, perspectives, and expertise to share our connection to water in hopes of fostering a resilient future for Wisconsin. Healthy water is integral to every person’s well-being, culture, and legacy.

Wisconsin Academy Staff on a Retreat in the Apostle Islands of Lake Superior, Summer 2014

Kayakers on Lake Superior at the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Summer 2014.

In 2012 we embarked on the second generation of our WOW work, taking stock of progress and setbacks since the first WOW Initiative a decade ago. We have seen many state, regional, and federal successes since 2003, which include a new framework for groundwater policy (Act 310 in 2003), the eight-state Great Lakes Compact, as well as the 2010 Phosphorus Rule to support new land-based strategies to reduce nutrient pollution in our lakes and streams.

We have also identified new challenges. Some old problems have taken on new forms, and others that we did not anticipate have expanded the list of concerns.

Nutrient Pollution a Growing Obstacle to Healthy Waters

As we look at lingering and new problems, nutrient pollution is one of the most complex. Phosphorus, nitrogen, and potassium are the three critical nutrients that make things grow. These are found in crop fertilizers throughout the world, and widely applied in the Midwest. Phosphorus benefits everything from crops to golf courses to lawns, supporting cell division for plant growth.

Yet this boon also acts as a bane to our waters. Phosphorus spurs algae growth, leading to massive algal blooms. When these blooms die and decompose, the process absorbs much of the oxygen in the adjacent water leading to zones of little or no oxygen—and little or no life (the latter are commonly referred to as “dead zones”). The worst blooms contain cyanobacteria, the scientific name for blue-green algae. Cyanobacteria produce microcystin toxins associated with a wide array of health defects, including liver toxicity, neurtoxicity, and tumor growth. It was the Microcystis aeruginosa cyanobacterium (associated with liver toxicity) that triggered the shutdown of Toledo’s drinking water intake in August of this year.

Near true-color image of Green Bay from October 1999, showing the immense scale of the algal bloom in the bay. For more, see the Fall 2013 Wisconsin People & Ideas Magazine article “Signs of Like in the Dead Zone."

Near true-color image of Green Bay from October 1999, showing the immense scale of the algal bloom in the bay. For more, see the Fall 2013 Wisconsin People & Ideas Magazine article “Signs of Like in the Dead Zone”.

There was a time, after the first “death” of Lake Erie, when we thought we had turned the tide and solved nutrient pollution. Today’s lingering water problems prove that we still have much work to do. Summer algal blooms appear in many inland lakes in Wisconsin, and dead zones are back with a vengeance in Green Bay, western Lake Erie, Saginaw Bay, and the Gulf of Mexico. This tells us that our original strategies are not working. 


New & Lingering Challenges

Solving new and lingering challenges like nutrient pollution with old strategies is not likely to succeed given both the extent of these challenges and the changes in Wisconsin’s landscape, climate, ecology, and agricultural practices. Together these have exacerbated the impacts of nutrient pollution over the last decade.

Agriculture has changed significantly. Large-scale operations in both crops and dairy continue to eclipse small farms, and feature denser concentrations of big-scale operations on finite acres. As a result, we have overwhelmed the capacity of land to capture and cycle the influx of nutrients before flowing into our lakes and streams.

Elsewhere in the landscape, sprawl has marched forward. Suburban and urban pavement and other impervious surfaces reduce the capacity for natural landscapes to capture rainfall and snowmelt laden with street debris and lawn runoff–two. Municipal sewage treatment plants and some industrial sources also release nutrients—although it is important to note that many throughout Wisconsin have already made large investments in technology to curb their contribution to the overall problem. 

The climate has shifted, too. The upper Midwest has seen significant increases in extreme weather over the last decade, especially in the form of intense thunderstorms like those that set rainfall records in June. These torrential rains scour fields and streets and send loose soils and anything in them rushing into streams, rivers, and lakes. This phenomenon overwhelms nutrient infusion concentrated in just a few weeks in the spring.

The life in the water is also undergoing transformation. In the Great Lakes, invasive quagga and zebra mussels have altered the biological dynamics and chemical and physical condition of the waters, further adding to nutrient pollution. As filter feeders, these invasive mussels are voracious eaters of plankton, outcompeting native mussels for food. Their appetite leads to greater water clarity–making way for more stronger sunlight penetration, and warmer waters. And what does toxic algae need to flourish more than phosphorus? Sunlight. As such, the biology of these invasives work in tandem with algal blooms to degrade water quality.


There Are Solutions

With all these moving parts, how can we improve the health of our waters? Of course we need to respond to vivid symptoms of impaired waters, such as a potentially dangerous outburst of cyanobacteria. But we also need to dig down into the root causes and the complex macro-level factors. We must examine the policies that incentivize the commodity crops driving growers to import so much chemical fertilizer into the region, economic drivers that reward the idea that “bigger is better” in livestock operations, and urban design that defaults to impervious pavements and “gray” pipe and sewer infrastructure instead of green infrastructure like wetlands and natural floodplains. We should also examine the regulatory limits of the Clean Water Act, best practices to prevent the spread of invasive species, and strategies to reduce the emissions that drive climate change and adapt to the ongoing impacts

A child builds memories by connecting to land and water along Lake Superior at the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Summer 2014.

A child builds memories by connecting to land and water along Lake Superior at the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Summer 2014.

To fully respond to these complex changes on the land, in the water, and in the atmosphere, we need not only a regulatory framework that keeps pace with today’s challenges, but bolder strategies that will examine the pressures on the land that impact our ponds, lakes, streams, rivers, and wetlands. We also need to listen to the wisdom of the old stories that remind us why these waters mean so much to all of us, and how they define life in Wisconsin. Healthy waters are not just a technical and ecological challenge. These are also a social challenge—and every person is a critical piece of the solution.

We welcome you to join the conversation for healthier waters.





Jane Elder recently retired from her position as Executive Director of the Wisconsin Academy. She brought to the Wisconsin Academy a strong background in public policy leadership, nonprofit management, and involvement in Wisconsin arts.

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