Everyday runoff is today's big polluter
By JO SANDIN
Second of three parts
It's called polluted runoff, and it's a big part of the reason that - almost 30 years after passage of the Clean Water Act - so many streams and lakes are not yet fit for fishing or swimming.
Urban and rural runoff, also called non-point pollution because it doesn't originate at a specific point, is the leading cause of dirty water in Wisconsin, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. Runoff degrades or threatens about 40% of the state's 44,000 miles of streams and rivers, 90% of its 15,037 inland lakes, many Great Lakes harbors, wetland areas and substantial groundwater resources.
The situation has brought the state to a crossroads in the journey toward clean water, said DNR Secretary Darrell Bazzell.
"We have made tremendous progress in addressing point-source pollution," he said. "The decisions we make now will affect whether we deal aggressively and effectively with non-point pollution."
Wisconsin residents seem to understand that, said Allen Shea, the DNR's director of watershed management. They turned out in droves for two separate rounds of public hearings on setting statewide performance standards for non-point pollution.
In response to 1,400 citizen comments from the first hearings in 2000, the department completely rewrote its proposal. This spring, more than 1,000 people showed up to discuss the second draft. Their remarks ran to 165 pages, even in summarized form.
"While it's difficult to work with that volume of comment," Shea said, "it is heartening that that many people are interested in the topic."
Changing what 'status' is
Since 1978, the DNR has worked with willing landowners, mainly farmers, to control non-point pollution voluntarily. Department staff - sometimes responding to farmers' requests for advice, sometimes responding to residents' complaints of pollution - have recommended such practices as naturally planted buffer strips to capture such contaminants as fertilizers and pesticides.
Although significant progress has been made, Shea said, the department has discovered that runoff is too big a problem for a purely voluntary approach.
Using legislative authority given in 1999, the department has been framing a set of mandatory standards in close consultation with the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. Those standards will go to the Natural Resources Board, the citizens policy-making body of the DNR, for approval in December. If approved, the standards would be reviewed by the Legislature and would go into effect next year.
"I think we have moved quite a long way in recognizing that it's not just an agricultural problem," said Shea. "It comes from virtually all land practices."
That's why Shea called the runoff rules "probably the most profound and important" since point-source rules were adopted to clean up discharges from factories and sewage treatment plants under the Clean Water Act of 1972 and other legislation.
Exact language for about 500 pages of regulations is still being fine-tuned in response to the most recent public comments. Essentially, these are standards limiting runoff of soil particles, fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals from parking lots, bridges, highways, golf courses, parks, construction sites and corporate lawns, as well as barnyards and farm fields.
Beginning in 2003, most cities of 10,000 or more must meet federal requirements to control storm water runoff. Wisconsin rules would extend runoff standards to municipalities with population densities of 1,000 per square mile. State rules encourage heavy use of naturally planted buffer areas and provide for some cost sharing.
Since one provision would include any property 5 acres or larger on which fertilizer or pesticide is applied, the rules will affect everything from how a farmer plants the back 40 to how some suburbanites fertilize the front lawn.
In other words, they will affect the way we all live.
It's about time, said Eric Uram, Great Lakes program director of the Sierra Club.
"If we're going to find solutions," he said, "we're going to have to stop relying on the next generation to find the solutions."
Whether it runs out of a factory or off the farm or lawn, Uram said: "Pollution comes from demand for products. We are the consumers who demand certain things sometimes only because they're marketed to us. We have to be more aware of the total footprint of what that product does in its creation, use and disposal."
We have ignored, he said, the value of the things we can't live without - air and water.
"Society sees as measures of success having a $50,000 suburban utility vehicle that gets 10 miles to the gallon and having a huge house that costs more to cool than most people pay for house payments," Uram said. "Those are status symbols. That's part of the error of our ways. We need to change what status is."
Lawns of little help
Sometimes, it doesn't look as if change is in the air.
Researchers studying water quality in 47 small streams in southeastern Wisconsin between the 1970s and the 1990s found that runoff from urban sprawl, which is on the rise in Wisconsin, was no less serious than that from farmland, which is shrinking.
"The surprise was that some of those streams got even worse as farmland got converted to suburbs," said John Lyons, a research scientist with the DNR.
After no more than a 10% increase in impervious surface in the watershed, the researchers noticed that fish species dropped sharply. Often, the number of species present - a sure sign of water quality - was cut in half.
Lyons and fellow researchers, whose study was published last October in the Journal of the American Water Resources Association, suspect that pavement is the culprit.
In this case, pavement is defined in the broadest terms, meaning not only asphalt, macadam, concrete and roof shingles, but also lawns, with their shallow-rooted systems lying over soil compacted by heavy machinery.
For example, a soccer field, added to one development for runoff control and recreation, proved to be almost no help in slowing runoff.
Increasing "pavement," Lyons said, had two effects - more flooding and less groundwater.