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Tainter-Menomin phosphorus issue featured on Wisconsin Public Radio

By LeAnn R. Ralph

EAU CLAIRE —  Phosphorus — it’s a subject near and dear to the Village of Colfax.

Well, maybe not so “dear” but certainly “near.”

Phosphorus, Tainter Lake, Lake Menomin, the Red Cedar Watershed, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ Total Maximum Daily Load study (TMDL) were subjects featured on The West Side radio show on Wisconsin Public Radio February 28.

 As per orders from WDNR, the Village of Colfax will be working on reducing phosphorus this year from the discharge going into the Red Cedar River.

Colfax has been under a limit of one milligram of phosphorus per liter since 1992, but for more than 20 years has been discharging about ten times the legal limit.

Algae has been a problem in Tainter and Menomin since the 1970s, said Dan Zerr, a regional natural resources educator with UW-Extension.

Blue-green algae in the lakes create an unpleasant odor, is unsightly, and contributes to health issues from the gases created by the algae and cyanobacteria that can make it difficult for people to breathe, he said.

Algae feeds on the phosphorus, so the best way to reduce the algae is to control the phosphorus, which will reduce the frequency and intensity of the algae blooms, Zerr said.

While algae in lakes is a source of food for aquatic creatures, blue-green algae is not a food source and can be toxic to livestock and pets, said Paul LaLiberte, DNR wastewater field supervisor.

Blue-green algae is an indicator of an unbalanced lake system, he said.

Economic impact

The algae problem in Tainter and Menomin has grown considerably worse in the last 20 to 30 years, Zerr said.

Several decades ago, there were more marinas and bait shops on the lakes, but people are now using the lakes less for recreation because of the algae blooms, he said.

“A clear lake brings in people who want to fish and swim,” Zerr said.

A loss of water quality also results in a loss of property value, he said.

According to a University of Wisconsin-Whitewater study, farther north in the 1,900 square-mile Red Cedar Watershed, property values are much better than they are around Tainter and Menomin, Zerr said.

Far north in the watershed, on Red Cedar Lake where the water quality is better, lake frontage is selling for $1,300 a linear foot, he said.

On Tainter Lake, lake frontage is selling for $400 per linear foot, and on Lake Menomin, property is selling for $150 per linear foot, Zerr said.

On Tainter and Menomin, “houses are not worth what they used to be,” he said.


The blue-green algae stays near the surface and clouds out sunlight that aquatic plants need to live; the aquatic plants create habitat for fish, LaLiberte said.

When the blue-green algae dies, it accumulates in bays and creates “obnoxious conditions,” he said.

Because of the algal toxins, one DNR worker ended up with a rash when water contaminated with blue-green algae splashed on her leg, LaLiberte said.

Livestock and pets have died after drinking the water from Tainter and Menomin, he said.

Tainter and Menomin are both impoundments — lakes created by damming up the Red Cedar River — and both are more susceptible to phosphorus accumulation than natural lakes, LaLiberte said.


Phosphorus regulations go back to the 1970s when Wisconsin banned phosphorus in laundry detergent, LaLiberte said.

In 1992, regulations were implemented for the discharge of wastewater from the wastewater treatment plants of municipalities, he said.

Other milestones LaLiberte noted included: Tainter and Menomin were declared impaired waters in 1996; stormwater permitting for construction sites was implemented in 1997; in 2002, minimum performance standards were adopted for agriculture; in 2005, Tainter and Menomin were posted with toxic algae signs; in 2008, professional nutrient management plans were required for turf areas, such as golf courses; in 2010, sales of phosphorus in lawn fertilizer and dishwasher detergent were banned and acceptable phosphorus limits were established in the TMDL, which is a clean-up plan and part of the federal Clean Water Act.


Point sources (wastewater treatment plants) have been well-regulated over the years, but the non-point sources (farm fields; lawns; forests) are not as easy to regulate, LaLiberte said.

Point sources started out accounting for 7 percent of the phosphorus load, but in the last 20 years, the regulations have dropped the phosphorus load to 4 percent, he said.

Cropland accounts for two-thirds of the phosphorus load in the Red Cedar Watershed, LaLiberte said.

“Farmers are not bad, but 300,000 acres of cropland in the watershed (makes it difficult to regulate),” he said.

The Red Cedar River Watershed covers 1,900 square miles and includes about 1.2 million acres.

Watershed projects

Julia Olmstead, who works with the Farmer Led Watershed Council and is a UW-Extension educator, said that state law requires 70 percent cost-sharing for “best management practices” before farmers can be required to comply with phosphorus regulations.

Regulation and enforcement of agriculture is difficult because there is no pipe coming off the end of the field, Olmstead said.

Olmstead is working on pilot “sub-watershed” projects in a number of counties, including Dunn, that cover areas of about 15,000 acres.

Farmer-led watershed councils are particularly effective because the farmers know their fields and what works and what does not work, she said.

A pilot project in the Town of Grant north of Colfax was quite effective, Zerr noted.

Farmers were surveyed about what they knew concerning run-off containing phosphorus and what they would be willing to do to help reduce run-off, he said.

No-till equipment was rented and made available to the farmers so they could try it; no-till helps keep the soil in place, which in turn keeps the phosphorus in place, Zerr said.

No-till saves money on fuel costs, too, and the yields were as good or better, he said.

“This is a shared problem, and it going to have to be a shared solution,” Zerr said.

“Everyone needs to take ownership and figure out what they are going to do with the land they manage,” he said, noting that “land management” includes everything from farm fields to lawns.

LaLiberte was allowed to have the “last word” for the radio program.

“Everybody is contributing (to phosphorus), and we all have to do our part,” he said.