Choked waters

(First published in the May 10, 2018 issue of City Pages)

The DNR has confirmed how much phosphorous is contaminating the Wisconsin River. Cleaning up the mess will cost millions and mean a huge change for farmers.


Rick Georgeson started vacationing at Petenwell Lake in central Wisconsin nearly 40 years ago. Every year, residents of the man-made lake on the Wisconsin River in Juneau and Adams Counties expected the same thing to happen in late summer: Blue-green algae blooms would form in the lake, making the water unswimmable for several weeks and occasionally leaving a foul stench in the air.

Excess levels of phosphorous were causing the blooms. Phosphorous, an essential nutrient for plant growth, fertilizes algae, causing it to grow unnaturally quickly and choke lakes, ponds, and other slow-moving waterways.

Georgeson and his fellow lake dwellers decided to do something about it, and in 2006 formed the Petenwell and Castle Rock Stewards, committed to improving the water quality of the two lakes. They hosted a Pontoons and Politics event in summer 2008, inviting state legislators to come take a look at the lake and see for themselves the problem.

The event made such an impression on lawmakers that in the following biennial budget in 2009, the state allocated $750,000 to fund a study on total maximum daily load (TMDL) that would determine just how much phosphorous was in the Wisconsin River and where it was coming from.

The Dept. of Natural Resources finally released the results of that TMDL study earlier this year, and its findings are staggering.

Spanning from the river’s headwaters in Vilas County south to Lake Wisconsin in Sauk County, the study found 65 rivers and streams and eight major lakes that are impaired by high phosphorous levels and are large contributors to the pollution.

Waterways like the Big Eau Pleine Reservoir and the Big Rib River in Marathon County need to reduce phosphorus run-off by 84% and 80% respectively to meet the DNR’s water quality standards—that is, a point when the waterways can naturally handle these nutrient pollutants.

Other waterways downstream of Marathon County such as Petenwell Lake and the Castle Rock Flowage, need 63% and 49% reductions in their daily phosphorous loads.

Unlike toxic industrial pollutants, phosphorus itself is not intrinsically poisonous in the way a layman might see it. Phosphorus overload can be attributed to an unnaturally high amount of organic waste such as dead leaves or manure. But it can kill aquatic life nonetheless.

The Wisconsin River Basin phosphorous is coming from a number of point sources—an identifiable source of pollution such as a pipe or ditch—that includes discharges from municipal wastewater treatment facilities and industrial businesses along the river.

The biggest culprit is nonpoint sources, especially agriculture because of industrial fertilizers and manure spread on fields. Agriculture contributes an estimated 80% of the phosphorous that poisons Wisconsin’s waterways, which means that cleaning up urban sources of this pollution would make only a small dent in the problem.

That urban versus ag pollution does vary depending on the watershed and point on the river. “(Agriculture) is a big player in the phosphorous levels,” says Pat Oldenburg, Wisconsin River Basin TMDL Coordinator. “How much it affects the river is really watershed specific.”

So solving the phosphorous problem will require multiple parties to work with each other simultaneously. Farmers must volunteer to adopt best management practices (BMPs) to prevent run-off and soil loss; municipalities must make upgrades to their wastewater treatment facilities in order to abide by regulations set by the Clean Water Act. It’s going to cost farmers and municipalities billions of dollars to make changes that would provide any discernable results.

There’s no timetable yet on when the waterways will be cleaned up. The DNR hasn’t started the public comments on the study but has plans to do so in the next few months. In the meantime, farmers and municipalities are bracing for an expensive process to clean our waterways.

The problem reaches the ocean



The Big Eau Pleine Reservoir experienced a massive fish kill in 2009, when more than 65% of the fish were killed due to low oxygen levels in the water caused by phosphorous pollution.

In 2017 the Gulf of Mexico near the Mississippi River Delta experienced a massive, record breaking dead zone the size of New Jersey. Nearly 8,000 square miles of ocean was oxygen-depleted, meaning it couldn’t sustain plant or fish life. This was caused by run-off from point and nonpoint sources into the Mississippi River, of which the Wisconsin River is major tributary.

Marathon County has experienced its own “dead zone.” In March 2009, more than 65% of the fish died in the Big Eau Pleine Reservoir due to lack of oxygen underneath 26 miles of ice. “There were just so many dead fish. They were everywhere,” says John Kennedy, Vice President of Big Eau Pleine Citizens Corporation, which works to improve the quality of the Big Eau Pleine Reservoir. “There was a smell in the air because you had to leave everything there to decompose naturally.”

The aerator in the reservoir was replaced that fall to pump more oxygen into the waters. Despite that, the reservoir still experienced fish kills since then, such as in 2013 when a large number of walleye died.

Kennedy says the massive 2009 fish kill was caused not only by a low water level that winter, but by high phosphorous levels in the reservoir.

More than 150,000 pounds of phosphorous can be delivered to the reservoir annually, causing massive algae blooms that choke out other aquatic life. Recovering all the fish from these kills will take years and maybe decades—and perhaps only if the stream feeding the Big Eau Pleine see that phosphorous reduction by 84%.

Historical context is needed to understand how it got so bad and why agriculture is being targeted.

In the 1940s and 50s, the federal government’s goal was to develop Marathon County into a major player in the dairy industry by moving much of the dairy production from the hills of the driftless area in the southwestern part of the state to flatter ground in central Wisconsin.

The problem in doing that: Much of the land was wet and marshy, and needed to be terra-formed into farm fields.

Nearly 50% of the Big Eau Pleine watershed— which covers much of western Marathon County and parts of Wood and Taylor Counties—was wetland at one time.

In order to help establish agriculture in the area, the federal government installed 350 miles of ditches in the Big Eau Pleine watershed and helped finance the installation of miles of drain tile to dry out wetland areas. The work succeeded. Marathon County became one of the top dairy producing-areas in the U.S. That progress came with a cost, though: the Big Eau Pleine watershed now has half the wetlands it used to. In other words, nature’s water filter and drainage is now covered annually with tons of fertilizer, ag manure, and tilled to bare soil.

There’s not much to stop run-off from farm fields. A three-inch rain will take the Big Eau Pleine River flow from a lazy 30 cubic feet per second (cfs) to a whitewater rapid-like 10,000 cfs in only six hours.

And county farmers are losing more soil than in years past. In 2000, farms were losing two tons of soil an acre per year. That average increased to 2.2. tons by 2016. The Fenwood Creek watershed in the middle of the county is even worse. Farmers were losing 1.9 tons per acre in 2000 but up to 3.2 tons in 2016.

Ken Schroeder, UW-Extension agriculture agent for Portage County, says he’s seen some fields with so much erosion that the topsoil is gone and they’re down to subsoil. “There’s not much coming back from that.”

Costs to taxpayers

The villages of Edgar and Marathon City were two of the first communities in the state to be given new standards by the DNR for phosphorous discharging when their discharge permits were up for renewal. However, the new amounts the two communities are required to match aren’t feasible. Early estimates for Marathon City’s wastewater treatment facility upgrades could cost $4-$5 million and sewer rates could rise by about 50% in both villages.

Edgar Administrator Louella Luedtke says Edgar and Marathon City could partner to share a wastewater treatment facility and use a force main line to connect the two communities. Mosinee constructed twin force main lines and two pumping stations along Old Highway 51 to the Rib Mountain Metropolitan Sewerage District in 2012 for $9.93 million instead of rehabbing its wastewater treatment plant, which would have cost $7.5 million. That was the more fiscally responsible choice for Mosinee in the long-term, but the cost and feasibility of Edgar and Marathon City connecting won’t be known until fall 2018.

Edgar and Marathon City’s struggles are emblematic of nearly all municipalities located in the Wisconsin River Basin: They’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.

The Wausau City Council recently saw the results of a facility plan done by Donohue & Associates for its wastewater treatment plant, and the potential costs of the upgrades don’t look good for taxpayers. It’s possible Wausau could spend $78.9 million to go through with all the upgrades recommended in the study. Sewer rates for residents could rise anywhere between $150-$200 per month.

Most of those costs are related to safety and modern upgrades that need to be address regardless of the phosphorus limits. Still, addressing this issue alone would cost $6 million.

Wausau currently discharges 1 milligram of phosphorous per liter of water, but when the DNR comes out with its new regulations for the city later this year or in early 2019, Lindman says he expects Wausau will have to cut its phosphorous discharge by more than two-thirds. That’s going to require wastewater treatment processes and upgrades and purchases of new machinery. Yet that will come nowhere near reaching overall phosphorus reduction targets for the Wisconsin River, because agriculture is the main culprit.

“We probably have about 1,200 pieces of equipment in that treatment plant right now,” Lindman says. “The frustrating part is it’s not going to make a significant impact downstream.”

The city could choose to ignore the new regulations, but would face escalating fines from the DNR and the EPA for not meeting the phosphorous discharge standards. In that scenario, the DNR would eventually take over Wausau’s wastewater treatment facility and hire a contractor at the taxpayers’ expense to bring the facility into compliance. “It would be very messy,” Lindman says.

Lindman says less costly measures could decrease the amount of phosphorous Wausau is responsible for dumping into the river. Lindman says Wausau could improve its leaf pickup program, for example. During a rainfall, leaves sitting on a curb get carried into Wausau’s storm system and jettisoned into the Wisconsin River. This organic matter contains a high concentration of phosphorous. Wausau could also improve the way it applies sludge produced from solids at the wastewater treatment plant onto farm fields, Lindman says.

“I think we could increase the funding to that leaf pickup program and have more of a significant impact to what’s being discharged to the Wisconsin River than putting in tens of millions of dollars into the treatment facility,” Lindman says.

Nothing changes without farmers’ help


Specialized machinery helps Pat Socha plant corn and soybeans on his no-till 350-acre farm north of Edgar. Socha hasn’t tilled his fields since 2014 and has used cover crops since 2008. He says both changes have reduced run-off and improved the quality of his soils.

Pat Socha began using cover crops in 2008. When he isn’t growing corn and soybeans on his nearly 350-acre farm just north of Edgar, Socha plants rye and oats on his farm. The goal of cover cropping is to keep soil protected for as long as possible throughout the year to reduce erosion.

Cover cropping is an example of a BMP (Best Management Practices) many farmers across the U.S. are adopting to decrease the amount of runoff during rain events and snow melt.

Socha spends $32 an acre on cover crops but found out that despite cover cropping, he still had significant erosion occurring on his property so he switched to no-till farming in spring 2014.

Socha didn’t till about half his acreage in spring 2014, and found there was no difference in crop yield from the land he no-tilled and conventionally tilled—specialized seeding equipment allowed him to plant while barely disturbing the soil. He went on to no-till all of his land in 2015 and has seen a positive difference in the soils since. He says the gullies along the drainage lines on his land have started to heal themselves and there’s not as dramatic a dip in the land anymore.

Socha found he even saved money through these practices. He has less wear and tear on his equipment. Socha hasn’t even had to spend more money on spraying herbicides, something he thought would be a bigger expense when he moved to no-till.

Socha also has a nutrient management plan for his land, something Marathon County Land and Water Program Director Paul Daigle is trying to get established for the more than 2,000 farms in the county. These plans test a farm’s soils to see what nutrients are in the ground and suggest crop rotations for the next four years. Currently only 55% of the farms in the county have nutrient management plans, and there’s limited money to help farmers get those plans in place.

However, the county has received $800,000 from the DNR to implement the Fenwood Creek Watershed plan, which it adopted in 2016. Fenwood Creek is one of the main waterways that flows into the Big Eau Pleine Reservoir, and the plan calls for a 50% decrease in the amount of phosphorous in the creek within 10 years. The watershed itself is 39 square miles and 65% of it is agricultural land that is characterized by thin soil that erodes easily.

Daigle says he hopes he can get high participation from farmers through voluntary efforts and education on BMPs. If effective, Fenwood Creek would be the pilot program utilized for the rest of the watersheds in Marathon County.

Historical precedent shows that voluntary efforts by farmers can clean up individual watersheds. Wisconsin River Basin TMDL Coordinator Pat Oldenburg points to the Pleasant Valley Watershed project, which from 2009-2016 helped to reduce phosphorous discharge into the Pleasant Valley Branch of the Pecatonica River in southwestern Dane County by 55% during storm events.

The DNR worked with farmers for four years to help get nutrient management plans and BMPs in place. The watershed showed measurable results within three-and-a-half years of implementation. Farmers working with the project cut their estimated average phosphorus runoff and erosion almost in half.

“That shows you can do things through voluntary efforts. These practices are effective and farmers will adopt them,” Oldenburg says. “That was a key thing — to let us know that real hard science can be done in the real world. These aren’t just numbers on a computer then.”

Even Marathon County has had success in the past. During the 1990s, nearly 30% of landowners implemented BMPs through the Lower Big Eau Pleine priority watershed project.

So if this can work in the real world, then why aren’t all farmers doing it? For some, it can be the cost of investing in specialized seeding equipment. Socha describes it as a paradigm shift. Many farmers are being asked to move away from practices they’ve used for decades. And in a business where just one or two years of poor crop yield can lead to losing your farm, change can be a tough ask.

“You don’t want a planting to be a failure — everyone is afraid of that. So far, I haven’t seen that yet,” Socha says. “It’s something new. It’s hard to change the mindset of people who have been doing these things a certain way for years.”