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EAU CLAIRE, Wis. — A milestone has been reached in the decades-long effort to free Tainter and Menomin lakes — and the Red Cedar River that forms them — of the noxious algal blooms that impair these Dunn County waters.
Years of research, monitoring and detailed analysis have culminated in a federally sanctioned blueprint, called a TMDL, to restore the Red Cedar so that once again these waters will be safe and inviting for swimmers, report officials with the state Department of Natural Resources.
A TMDL, which means total maximum daily load, establishes the amount of phosphorus a water body can receive and still meet water quality standards designed to support human recreation and great fishing. In the case of Menomin and Tainter lakes, the EPA-approved plan calls for a 65 percent reduction in the amount of phosphorus flowing into the Red Cedar basin each day.
“This is a lofty goal and an immense task,” said Paul Laliberte, the DNR water quality manager who supervised this TMDL. “It will not happen overnight. No one entity can accomplish it. Our best hope is in the partnerships we and others are forming, bringing university experts, county conservationists, municipal officials, land owners, DNR staff and citizen groups to the same table.”
Phosphorus is a naturally occurring nutrient found in soils, livestock manure and commercial fertilizers. It reaches streams as polluted runoff from farms and urban landscapes and in discharges from wastewater treatment plants. Phosphorus fuels the growth of plants, including algae. In excessive amounts, especially during warm weather, it can feed noxious blue-green algal blooms, which contain a range of toxins and can lead to human health problems. Dogs, less likely to avoid direct contact with green water, are at greater risk.
In the worse cases, unfortunately common in Tainter and Menomin, unsightly mats of blue-green algae throw off foul odors and make the water body uninviting. The city of Menomonie closed its public beach years ago.
The Red Cedar basin drains 1,893 square miles in the rolling hills of west central Wisconsin and includes all or part of eight counties. This rural watershed is primarily agricultural, supporting dozens of small municipalities and thousands of farms.
The TMDL, in detailing the amounts of phosphorus the basin can safely absorb, also identifies the reductions needed from each of the various sources.
Achieving these reductions in a vast watershed with thousands of sources is a daunting, but by no means impossible, undertaking.
“Years of work lay ahead of us,” Laliberte said, “but for the first time, the people of the Red Cedar basin have the tools they need to move forward.”
New phosphorus water quality standards, which will determine permit levels for municipal and industrial point dischargers, and new standards for phosphorus runoff from agricultural fields are two of these tools.
Innovative strategies have been developed for point source dischargers so they can comply with new phosphorus limits in the most cost-effective manner possible. These include “adaptive management” and “water quality trading.” Both allow a point source discharger, such as a municipal wastewater plant, to achieve compliance by finding ways to reduce phosphorus from other point sources or from non-point sources, such as individual farm fields that for various reasons, including topography, contribute a disproportionate share of phosphorus pollution.
A TMDL report was prepared and recently approved for the St Croix Basin as well, aimed at reducing phosphorus inputs to Lake St. Croix.
And in both the Red Cedar and St. Croix watersheds an exciting new project turns to farmers for leadership in the war on phosphorus pollution. It targets “subwatersheds” in Pierce, Polk, St. Croix and Dunn counties.
A project coordinator will be hired by the University of Wisconsin-Extension, based at UW-River Falls. The coordinator, along with county conservationists from the four counties, will organize farmer-led councils to guide all aspects of the project. The councils, using the Wisconsin phosphorus index, will conduct a farm-by-farm inventory to find the fields losing the highest levels of phosphorus. The councils and county conservationists, with support from DNR, will work with farmers on these high-loading fields to determine the financial incentives and farming practices that will profitably reduce runoff.
After decades of work on runoff, DNR watershed experts, university agriculture agents and county conservationists have reached consensus on the critical need for citizens to become local leaders in the next era of reducing pollution and meeting water quality goals.
“If enough people get involved, and enough partnerships are formed, we will see the day when the Red Cedar runs clear,” Laliberte said.