WAUSAU, Wis. -- Water quality problems in the Wisconsin River are limiting recreational opportunities, hurting businesses and creating conditions that adversely affect public health, according to state environmental officials who say the primary problem is phosphorus and other nutrients that enter the river as runoff from agricultural fields, barnyards, urban storm water and wastewater discharges.
Phosphorus fuels massive blue-green algae blooms in Wisconsin River impoundments, some of the worst recorded anywhere in the state, according to Scott Watson, Wisconsin River basin manager for the state Department of Natural Resources. Blue-green algae can be toxic to animals and humans, causing respiratory ailments, watery eyes and rashes. In addition, excessive phosphorus and algae blooms can lower dissolved oxygen levels in the river, harm aquatic life and cause fish kills.
“Waterfront business owners tell us when the algae blooms are present, they have seen customers arrive, then get back in their cars and leave,” Watson said. “This is a problem we need to address.”
Unfortunately, Watson notes, there are no quick solutions to help these businesses, because the problem was a long-time in the making. So the DNR has embarked on a three-year, science-based program to evaluate the phosphorus loads entering the river during various seasons and different climatic conditions to tackle the biggest remaining pollution sources. It will be expensive to fix and the state can’t afford to waste any money on efforts that won’t fix the problem.
Water quality monitoring began this past year from Tomahawk downstream to the Lake Wisconsin Dam near Sauk City.
DNR staff is working with the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point to collect water quality samples at 21 river and stream sites and 23 reservoir sites. Water quality data is being collected as well by specially trained citizens who are contributing data from the Petenwell and Castle Rock flowages, the two largest impoundments on the river.
The Wisconsin River drains approximately 20 percent of the state to the Upper Mississippi River basin. Along its 430-mile journey, the river provides many benefits to local communities and industries, and it is a vital asset for our recreation and tourism economy.
Many of the historical water quality problems that impaired the Wisconsin River have been substantially addressed since the 1970s, primarily by regulating industrial and municipal discharges. However the river and some of its tributaries, such as the Big Eau Pleine River, continue to receive excessive nutrient loads, primarily phosphorus.
The water quality data collected as part of this monitoring effort will not only be used to determine the amount of phosphorus reduction needed to restore water quality, it will be used to predict how the river will respond to different types of management actions, such as erosion controls, cropping practices and wastewater treatment.
Specific limits will be established for the amount of phosphorus that can be discharged from point sources and from nonpoint sources. The limits are expressed as a total maximum daily load, or TMDL. Actually setting the TMDLs involves a public participation process, including a public comment period. Once comments are addressed, the TMDL must be approved by the Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“This study will give us the tools we need to design solutions,” said DNR monitoring coordinator Ken Schreiber. “This is a huge challenge and it’s one we have to take on for our economy and our environment.”
The Wisconsin River has long been an engine of commerce, a boundless source of recreation and the lifeblood of the communities that grew up around it. Its potential for future generations is enormous. This project is critical for reaching the long-term goal of restoring the health, beauty and economic vitality of Wisconsin’s namesake river and its tributaries.