Everyday runoff is today's big polluter

of the Journal Sentinel staff

Second of three parts

Every time it rains, residue from our way of life washes into the water.

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.

  • Rainwater was funneled more quickly out of the area, destroying the natural structure of stream channels, washing into streams the gunk on the surfaces, eroding stream banks and flooding downstream areas.
  • Water running off instead of soaking in couldn't recharge groundwater. Falling water tables decreased stream flows. "In some small systems, the drop of a few inches can mean the difference between a healthy stream and one that dries up," said Lyons.

    Not all findings from the study pointed to calamity. In contrast to the hard-packed soccer field, Lyons' group found that a much smaller prairie in another area was a veritable sponge.

    Knowing what kinds of green zones work and which do not, he said, might help community planners minimize the negative impacts of future development.

    Few envision a future without development.

    Donald Reed, chief biologist at Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, described Americans as stuck in a Catch-22 cycle in which the desire for clean water is subservient to the desire for a bigger house and a larger lawn, with a long driveway, all of which contribute to more polluted runoff.

    On the one hand, he said, we want polluters to stop fouling our waterways.

    On the other, he said, each individual property owner insists: "It's my land. I can do with it as I please. I've earned this. I ought to be able to do anything I want."

    So heated has the controversy over shore land protection become in northern counties that Robert Korth, who directs the University of Wisconsin Extension part of the Wisconsin Lakes Partnership, said he and his small staff have been spending more time on conflict resolution than aquatic biology.

    In other states, similar fights have ended up in court, where some recent decisions have struck down environmental regulations, citing a conflict with property rights.

    On the other hand, Robert Adler, law professor at the University of Utah's Wallace Stegner Center and a specialist in environmental law, said: "No rights are absolute. All rights are balanced against responsibilities. We have the right to use our property only in ways that don't hurt other people."

    'It's all connected'

    In Vilas County, a five-year, $3 million research project to assess the effects of development on 50 North Woods lakes got under way this summer under the leadership of UW-Madison professor Stephen Carpenter.

    Although the focus of the study will be fish communities, including the impact of exotic species on native fish, Carpenter said the approach will treat the shoreline itself as a complex ecosystem and will examine its interaction with lake and land use.

    A pilot project for the study, conducted on 16 lakes in Vilas County during the mid-1990s, showed that development led to a decrease in the number of trees on shore, fewer fallen trees in the water and a decline in fish production.

    "The fish are getting clobbered by development," said Carpenter. "The problem is that a better view of the lake makes the lake uglier to look at. That's the reality of the way the world works."

    What the research suggests for the future, Carpenter said, is high variability.

    "I think we will see a certain number of lake associations where people see the light and take forward-looking steps to maintain their lake environment," he said. "I think we'll see some lakes that go down the tubes. All it takes is one person who doesn't get the message to really damage a lakeshore."

    And what, as Carpenter understands, is the message?

    "It's all connected," he said.

    That connectedness extends to everyday life far away from waterways as well.

    Jennifer Feyerherm, a specialist on toxic substances for the Sierra Club, said something as simple as windshield washer fluid can play a role.

    Feyerherm used to work for the DNR compiling an annual toxic release inventory. In 1996, she noted that Wood County led the state with toxic releases with 5.4 million pounds, 3.1 million pounds of it methanol, or wood alcohol, a byproduct of the paper-pulping process.

    Windshield washer fluid contains methanol, a substance that is not incredibly toxic but is regulated. Feyerherm multiplied the number of cars registered in the state by the amount of methanol in two gallons of wiper fluid, a conservative estimate of what each car would need each year.

    She estimated that private cars would release more than 60 million pounds of methanol, more than the 29.4 million pounds released to air, water and land by all 857 companies in the state that were required to report their releases at the time.

    "We need people to pay attention to what they're consuming," she said. "We have pollution because of the choices we make."

    Cameron Davis, executive director for the Lake Michigan Federation, a citizens group dedicated to protecting the lake, said, "In some ways, we have attacked the easy problems, leaving the tougher problems for somebody else."

    Now, he said, people are discovering that "we are that somebody else."

    Signs of success

    Some are looking to the successes in western Wisconsin as examples of how much water quality can improve when land is used carefully.

    David Vetrano, senior fisheries biologist in the DNR's La Crosse office, found this assessment from 1958, written by one of the biologists who worked at the state's old Conservation Department:

    "Coulee region streams are in extremely poor shape because of the watershed management problems, and it is probable that the habitat conditions will continue to be degraded. Because of this fact it is also likely that trout stream fishing in the Coulee region may practically disappear in the future."

    Now Timber Coulee Creek and Coon Creek (which runs through Bohemian Valley) are waterways "where the recovery process is about as far along as it is going to get," Vetrano said.

    Both streams boast wild, self-sustaining populations of brook trout.

    In Wisconsin, that finicky species, which disappears fast if the water is a degree too warm or a shade too dirty, is the gold standard by which the health of a cold-water stream is measured.

    In the Kickapoo watershed alone, the miles of Class 1 streams, which support self-sustaining wild trout populations, increased from 170 to 248 since 1980, said the fisheries biologist. Of 1,500 total miles of stream, 850 have been reclassified as trout streams either as Class 1, Class 2 (stocks of fish can survive from one year to the next) or Class 3 (clean enough for stocked fish to survive the season).

    "The biggest reason is the change in land use over the last 30 years," said Vetrano.

    The Coulee region - named for the long, narrow valleys of streams feeding into the Mississippi - underwent a transition from agricultural to recreational land use. Farmers sold their land for private hunting preserves or to city people seeking country residences. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Conservation Reserve Program removed land from production by paying farmers to plant deep-rooted, natural cover on environmentally sensitive plots such as steep slopes.

    There are fewer farms than in the past. Crop farmers in the area embraced the use of contour plowing, terraces and grassy strips along stream banks to keep runoff to a minimum. Erosion rates, said Vetrano, are only 5% what they were in the 1930s.

    All of this makes trout fisherman Jim Share, 70, of Brodhead a happy man.

    The retired autoworker travels frequently to his favorite fishing spot - Coon Creek, a feeder stream to Timber Coulee Creek in Vernon County, less than five miles from the historical marker indicating the site of the nation's first watershed conservation project.

    Although Share is the kind of guy for whom a bad day fishing is better than a good day doing almost anything else, the angler said he usually avoids Class 2 and 3 streams, where trout are stocked.

    "Fishing for planted fish is almost like fishing in a hatchery - no challenge," he said. "Now the wild trout, they'll give you a run for your money."

    Letting nature rebound

    Elsewhere in the state, the dam removal movement promoted by the River Alliance of Wisconsin - an environmental group devoted to healthy rivers - has returned other, less likely streams, to levels of water quality in which trout can survive.

    To his surprise and delight, Matthew Coffaro can count the Milwaukee River among them.

    Coffaro, DNR regional fish biologist, said, "I used to play on the banks of the Milwaukee River, but I never thought I'd be able to go fishing there. To see these big 10- to 12-pound steelheads swimming up the river is just a joy."

    Steelhead are West Coast varieties of rainbow trout stocked by the DNR in the Milwaukee River. Although upstream dams still prevent the fish from reaching those cold-water tributaries where they might spawn successfully, steelhead - which feed and grow big in Lake Michigan - run upriver in spring and fall when the water is cold enough for them.

    In the last 30 years, Wisconsin has led the nation in dam removal with destruction of 73 obsolete structures in poor repair. The state has become such a leader in the field that the River Alliance has received requests from all over the world for its Dam Removal Toolkit.

    Todd Ambs, executive director for the alliance, said his work with dam removals has renewed his faith in the future health of the environment.

    "See how fast a river recovers when you remove the chunk of concrete that's creating an impoundment," he said. "If we just let nature take care of itself, it has a surprising resilience."

    That hopeful vision may be essential for the next phase of work under the Clean Water Act, which lawyer Adler described as extending regulation to large numbers of small entities, including private citizens.

    He said: "The public has to be educated about the impacts of shoreline and wetland development on the very amenities that draw them to these areas. We need to accept the principle of buffer zones. We need to move back from the water's edge so that not only landowners, but all of us can enjoy the lakes and rivers."

    Davis, of the Lake Michigan Federation, said, "If we do what's right around the house, if we think of our homes as the environment, our houses as totems of the world at large, and treat them accordingly, we will see an improvement in the stewardship of our own health and the environment."

    Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Sept. 10, 2001.