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Soaked in Controversy

With so many competing fresh water issues, how do we best manage resources?
Soaked in Controversy

Even before the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970 or the subsequent Clean Water Act, scientists in Green Bay knew an ecological and human health crisis was unfolding.

Research data from scientists like H. J. "Bud" Harris, a professor of natural and applied sciences at UW-Green Bay at the time, pointed to dramatic environmental changes in the waters around Green Bay.

Throughout the 1950s and '60s, many regional paper-making companies dumped polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the Lower Fox River, which empties into the bay. Though armed with evidence of environmental degradation, scientists soon realized they would need much more research in order to support the largest PCB remediation project in the world.

"Today the bay area near the [mouth of the] Lower Fox River, where most of Green Bay's population resides, is in 'recovery' stage," says Harris, who has been involved in Great Lakes research and restoration efforts for over three decades. "Yet it has taken more than forty years and legions of people-including litigation-to get here," he notes, even as dredging to remove PCBs continues in the bay.

With the Great Lakes containing one fifth of the world's fresh water and with human demand for water at its highest, the resource once considered infinite and free is becoming a high-stakes commodity. Wisconsin's 'fresh coast' has entered a new era of threat. In response, scientists from around the state recently gathered in Milwaukee to examine five broad categories of concern in the pursuit of fresh water sustainability: emerging contaminants, ecological harm from invasive species, climate change, an aging infrastructure, and groundwater issues. 

The gathering, "Today's Research Frontiers, Tomorrow's Water Policy," is one of many UW System-sponsored Wisconsin Idea Forums held over the past few years in an effort to connect university research with communities across the state and address some of Wisconsin's most urgent issues. "Today's Research Frontiers, Tomorrow's Water Policy" was conceived as a way to involve attendees in a fresh water public policy-making exercise and focus efforts on which threats to this precious resource should first be addressed. Some seventy people participated in the Wisconsin Idea Forum, not only to talk about freshwater issues relating to the Great Lakes but also to address the same question that once faced Green Bay residents: How do we direct available resources to reduce the risk of harm the most?

Mark Harris, acting dean of the brand new School of Freshwater Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM), added urgency to the call: "The intent is to identify a handful of critical and specific issues that need to be advanced immediately or in the next few years."

Not surprisingly, most of the discussion focused on the Great Lakes. "More than thirty million people use the Great Lakes," says Julie Kinzelman, a research scientist for the City of Racine who has worked with UWM scientists in identifying sources of beach pollution. "When we improved the water quality in Racine, usage of the beaches shot up," she says. Yet while the increased usage was an economic benefit for the city, Kinzelman notes that it also raised some health and other concerns. "Water is a resource issue, but [it's] also a policy, public education, and public health issue."

The challenges to managing our water resources are many and interconnected, but Wisconsin is well-positioned to take on the charge. Both UWM and UW-Madison are research leaders in water-related issues like beach pollution, new contaminants, and green infrastructure, and participants at the Wisconsin Idea Forum made the most of the collaborative atmosphere.

After breaking into groups that represented the five broad categories of concern, forum participants engaged in a ranking of priorities and impediments, culminating in a list of the top four needs: research, long-term monitoring, coordinated communication and public education, and innovative policy development. 


"The Great Lakes are both complex and vulnerable," says Val Klump, directorof the Great Lakes WATER Institute at UWM's School of Freshwater Sciences. "To effectively manage a system like the Great Lakes, you have to first understand it."

While science can drive policy, the research behind the ecological restoration of lakes and rivers is an ongoing process. "When the Green Bay project began, the goal was simply to bring the PCB dumping to a halt," says Bud Harris. The idea of environmental cleanup came later, as scientists pondered whether it was even possible to rehabilitate such a large ecosystem.

In 1991, EPA organized all the partners in the Green Bay project and conducted a risk assessment. "I don't think it's a coincidence that the [EPA] results [identified the same] areas we were concentrating on through our research: nutrient-loading, invasive species, wetland filling and habitat restoration, and persistent organics like PCBs," says Harris. "These are still the priorities."

Besides helping to solve known problems, research can reveal potential new problems. This is the challenge for Rebecca Klaper, a scientist at UWM's School of Freshwater Sciences. In her lab, Klaper tests the effects of emerging contaminates such as nanoparticles on fish.

"There are potentially thousands of 'emerging' contaminants in water that scientists know nothing about," says Klaper. Traces of prescription drugs, phthalates found in many products from plastics to shampoo, and the Bisphenol A (BPA) found in plastics and flame-retardants are all chemical compounds that find their way into our lakes and streams. According to Klaper, new research shows these compounds can pose hazards to human health.

Nanoparticles, one of the most-recent contaminants to emerge from her research, are fairly new to the marketplace and therefore little is known about their effects on humans. These tiny, engineered particles, often built around a minute carbon sphere or tubule, are used in cosmetics, coatings of various kinds, and some medicines. Many contain metals or silicon oxides. While they can easily enter and exit living cells, some nanoparticles remain and accumulate in living organisms that are higher on the food chain.

Klaper notes how other compounds that have been in use for some time are only now considered "emerging" contaminants. Many were poorly monitored in the past because their concentrations in the environment were considered too low to be of any danger. "Discovering the unknowns for a field like emerging contaminants is the number one goal," says Klaper. "We just don't know what [these compounds] are doing to our health—even in very small amounts." And when it comes to public policy, Klaper says it's essential that we know more about the effects of these contaminants. "We're missing this information," she says.

In addition to providing new information, research offers evidence that debunks incorrect assumptions, something that can hinder effective policymaking. That's what Racine's Kinzelman experienced while working to improve water quality at the city's public beaches. Using a scientific method to isolate the source of the microbial pollution, she proved that Racine's beach closings were not the result of sewage coming from Milwaukee, but rather from urban runoff and non-point pollution flowing into the lake from coastal regions. "The process of addressing the question [of this pollution] has put Racine further along than many cities regarding the effective uses of green infrastructure," says Kinzelman, particularly for the handling of run-off.

Long-term monitoring

Critical to understanding complicated environmental systems is tracking what UWM scientist Harvey Bootsma calls "the vital signs" of a water system: the presence or levels of particular compounds or gases, kinds of algae or zooplankton, and so forth. Real-time data from the monitoring of these vital signs allows scientists to recognize significant changes. This was one of the lessons learned during the Green Bay remediation effort.

"In 1986 the local Sewerage District began a long-term monitoring program [of water quality]," says Bud Harris. "I can't tell you how important it's been to have these long-term records," he says, noting how it would be impossible to make any decisions without this data.

The Wisconsin Idea Forum's ecology, groundwater, and climate change groups all ranked the need for better monitoring systems particularly high. Yet monitoring the incursion of invasive species can be extremely difficult. "Because of the dynamic nature of invasive species, ever-changing streams of data can present a challenge," says Bootsma, who led the forum's ecology group. "Invasives change how a system works relatively quickly." When a system acts differently year-to-year, it's difficult to interpret the data—and difficult to manage.

In a current, long-term study, Bootsma installed data collection equipment on the Lake Express, the high-speed ferry that traverses Lake Michigan between Milwaukee and Muskegon, to investigate whether invasive mussels, which carpet the lake bottom and disrupt the food web, are also altering the nutrient and carbon cycles in the lake. Data from the project may also show whether photosynthesis occurring in the Great Lakes soaks up carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, as it does in oceans and forests, or whether it gives off more CO2 than it consumes.

Regional groundwater management and monitoring has also become more important. Because Canada and the U.S have agreed that communities outside the Lake Michigan watershed cannot take the lake's water, growing inland communities must do more to monitor and manage their groundwater supplies to ensure that demand does not exceed aquifer capacity and rate of replenishment.

Another important use of monitoring is to ensure that urban planning and development accomplishes desired water management goals, says Tory Kress, an engineer and planner with the Milwaukee Redevelopment Authority. Kress is part of a team working on revitalizing the city's 30th Street Industrial Corridor. The revitalization plan includes retrofitting existing infrastructure with separated sewer lines in order to meet water quality goals. Even before the retrofit is complete, water quality monitoring can help mitigate existing or potential pollution issues.

Coordinated communication and education

Each of the Wisconsin Idea Forum's five groups acknowledged that to improve water management we need to better link our scientific knowledge with community involvement and education. Much information already exists, but not in a central location and not in a form that is meaningful to the public and nonscientists.

The ecology group in particular felt that a major barrier to action is a lack of understanding about interactions among research, policy, and management factions. "This is especially true in data on climate and ecological change where [better] coordination among various agencies that monitor copious conditions is a nationally recognized need," says Val Klump. Other times, the data clearly indicates a direction for action, but too many people simply aren't convinced. "We've got to do a better job of getting the messages of science out to the public," he says.

Group discussions focused on a "best practices toolbox" and/or a central clearinghouse for all kinds of information, from fact sheets on individual issues to summaries of scientific studies in accessible language.

Innovative policy development

Groups at the forum also identified a lack of creative policy-making as another impediment to fresh water protection. "Perhaps the largest obstacle to fresh water protection is overcoming inertia," says Nancy Frank, UWM associate professor of urban planning. "Policy-making in the U.S. is not set up to negotiate risk well," notes Frank. "Policy only changes when there's a significant risk to health or human welfare, and then it tends to be a long process. Ecological harm may not be considered dire enough to warrant policy change," she says, adding that it's important to consider a failing ecosystem as a significant longterm threat to human welfare.

Shaping local sustainability policy requires a merger of science with incentive, according to the summary report from the forum's groundwater group, led by UWM geologist Tim Grundl and Ken Bradbury, a professor with the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey through UW-Extension.

Economics is always a big incentive to change policy, adds Frank. "Apply the principles of reduce, reuse and recycle to water, and we will find the economies," she says. Franks points out, too, that discovering incentive can be easier with the aid of relatively new modeling software that takes into account many sets of data. Such software can help bring together the expertise and insight of professionals from many disciplines and provide the integrated assessment most forum participants desire.

In Wisconsin, like the rest of the country, this integrated approach hasn't yet taken hold. But the City of Portland, Oregon, employed such modeling software when it contemplated legislating urban growth boundaries. The software allowed policymakers to plug in several different "scenarios" and compare the outcomes in terms of how each would impact factors such as transportation and air pollution. Frank is quick to point out that UWM's School of Architecture and Urban Planning will begin teaching its students to use this "scenario planning" software soon as well.

In the end, true policy innovation will reflect the comprehensive view, says Bud Harris, though it won't happen quickly. "The issues with the Great Lakes will boil down to land-water interaction [and] policy will have to revolve around land use," he says, adding "we haven't dealt with those issues very thoroughly yet."

"It also relies on a change of culture," says Frank. So the public conversation should expand to include the incorporation of water use and management tools with "cradle-to-cradle" design, a type of design in which products are created with the intention of being reused or eventually incorporated into another system when its purpose is completed. "Such dramatic changes in people's lifestyles will take time to incubate and develop," Frank says, "but it's absolutely the right direction."

Summary reports and video from this forum are available at


In the fall of 2010, the University of Wisconsin-Extension, UW Colleges, and partners sponsored a forum at UW-Milwaukee to examine the state of Wisconsin's fresh water resources. The forum was the fourth in a series of statewide public forums initiated by the UW Board of Regents and UW System President Kevin Reilly to connect university research with communities across the state and address some of Wisconsin's most urgent issues. The fall 2010 forum brought together the public with inland and Great Lakes water experts from around the state in an effort to better understand the most-pressing issues related to water management in Wisconsin. Earlier forums addressed sustainability, alcohol abuse (Wisconsin's largest public health issue), and the challenges of obtaining financial aid for higher education. Another Wisconsin Idea Forum this spring, hosted by UW-Green Bay, entitled "Green Innovations: Waste or Wasted Opportunity, will explore the relationships between climate change and waste management. Wisconsin People & Ideas is pleased to share the results of these forums

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