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ARCHIVED Weekly News Published December 14, 2010

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Large-scale effort underway to improve Wisconsin River water quality

WAUSAU, Wis. -- Water quality problems in the Wisconsin River are limiting recreational opportunities, hurting businesses and creating conditions that adversely affect public health, according to state environmental officials who say the primary problem is phosphorus and other nutrients that enter the river as runoff from agricultural fields, barnyards, urban storm water and wastewater discharges.

Phosphorus fuels massive blue-green algae blooms in Wisconsin River impoundments, some of the worst recorded anywhere in the state, according to Scott Watson, Wisconsin River basin manager for the state Department of Natural Resources. Blue-green algae can be toxic to animals and humans, causing respiratory ailments, watery eyes and rashes. In addition, excessive phosphorus and algae blooms can lower dissolved oxygen levels in the river, harm aquatic life and cause fish kills.

"Waterfront business owners tell us when the algae blooms are present, they have seen customers arrive, then get back in their cars and leave," Watson said. "This is a problem we need to address."

Unfortunately, Watson notes, there are no quick solutions to help these businesses, because the problem was a long-time in the making. So the DNR has embarked on a three-year, science-based program to evaluate the phosphorus loads entering the river during various seasons and different climatic conditions to tackle the biggest remaining pollution sources. It will be expensive to fix and the state can't afford to waste any money on efforts that won't fix the problem.

Water quality monitoring began this past year from Tomahawk downstream to the Lake Wisconsin Dam near Sauk City.

DNR staff is working with the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point to collect water quality samples at 21 river and stream sites and 23 reservoir sites. Water quality data is being collected as well by specially trained citizens who are contributing data from the Petenwell and Castle Rock flowages, the two largest impoundments on the river.

The Wisconsin River drains approximately 20 percent of the state to the Upper Mississippi River basin. Along its 430-mile journey, the river provides many benefits to local communities and industries, and it is a vital asset for our recreation and tourism economy.

Many of the historical water quality problems that impaired the Wisconsin River have been substantially addressed since the 1970s, primarily by regulating industrial and municipal discharges. However the river and some of its tributaries, such as the Big Eau Pleine River, continue to receive excessive nutrient loads, primarily phosphorus.

The water quality data collected as part of this monitoring effort will not only be used to determine the amount of phosphorus reduction needed to restore water quality, it will be used to predict how the river will respond to different types of management actions, such as erosion controls, cropping practices and wastewater treatment.

Specific limits will be established for the amount of phosphorus that can be discharged from point sources and from nonpoint sources. The limits are expressed as a total maximum daily load, or TMDL. Actually setting the TMDLs involves a public participation process, including a public comment period. Once comments are addressed, the TMDL must be approved by the Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"This study will give us the tools we need to design solutions," said DNR monitoring coordinator Ken Schreiber. "This is a huge challenge and it's one we have to take on for our economy and our environment."

The Wisconsin River has long been an engine of commerce, a boundless source of recreation and the lifeblood of the communities that grew up around it. Its potential for future generations is enormous. This project is critical for reaching the long-term goal of restoring the health, beauty and economic vitality of Wisconsin's namesake river and its tributaries.

FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: Ken Schreiber, watershed monitoring coordinator, 715-839-3798 or Ed Culhane, DNR communications, 715-839-3715

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97 percent of public drinking water supplies meet all health-based standards

Report: federal funds helped 47 communities upgrade drinking water systems

MADISON -- Good news was on tap: 97 percent of the 11,422 public water systems met all health-based standards for the water they served.

"We're very pleased that Wisconsin utilities, DNR staff, and our other partners continue to do an exceptional job of providing safe drinking water for Wisconsin," says Jill Jonas, who leads the Department of Natural Resources drinking water and groundwater program.

Safe Water on Tap: The Annual Drinking Water Report, highlighted other good news for Wisconsin citizens and businesses who rely on public water suppliers for their drinking water and the water they need to run their manufacturing, food processing, agricultural and other operations:

Federal stimulus money enabled Wisconsin to provide $83.5 million in financial help to communities to upgrade their drinking water supply systems, more than doubling the number of communities typically assisted in a year, according to a recently released report on public water supplies' performance.

"We're pleased we were able to help so many communities continue to provide safe drinking water for citizens at an affordable price," Jonas said. "This was a unique opportunity, and many people worked hard to make the most of it.

DNR used funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, along with Safe Drinking Water Act State Revolving Funds, to provide more than $46 million in low-interest loans and $37 million in grants. Recipients included communities of all sizes, from Cumberland, to Fond du Lac, to Hurley, Richland Center, Stoughton and Stevens Point, according to Mary Rose Teves, director of the DNR Bureau of Community Financial Assistance, which administers the grants and loans.

The stimulus funding enabled communities to receive a grant to cover as much as half of their project cost.

Low-interest loans can give communities savings equal 20 to 30 percent compared to a market rate loan, depending on market rates, Teves says. Since the state program began in 1998, 147 projects have received more than $366 million in loans and grants to help improve their drinking water supplies.

The report also highlighted challenges to public water systems and the state program charged with carrying out federal Safe Drinking Water Act requirements.

To be eligible for federal Save Drinking Water funds, DNR analyzes results from water system sampling, provides technical help to owners and operators, reviews construction plans for water systems, enforces significant violations when necessary, and trains water system operators.

FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: Lee Boushon (608) 266-0857

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80,000 competed in Wisconsin fishing tournaments

MADISON -- Eighty-thousand anglers competed in 595 fishing tournaments in Wisconsin in 2010 and reeled in $3.9 million in prize money, according to statistics from the state's fishing tournament permit system.

Larger fishing tournaments have had to get permits since the mid-1990s, but a 2004 law directed the Department of Natural Resources to update rules as tournaments increased. DNR worked with an advisory group to revise the rules to establish limits on the size and number of tournaments on some lakes and rivers to minimize concerns such as crowding, the spread of invasive species, and indirect fish mortality.

In 2010, there were 637 applications for tournaments; all but one were approved, although some applications were withdrawn or the forms incomplete, and some events were cancelled. "Based on what we've seen so far, there doesn't seem to be any major issues with the capacity limits -- tournament organizers are getting the lakes and dates they wanted," says Jonathan Hansen, one of the fisheries biologists who works on tournament permitting issues.

Joanna Griffin, tournament coordinator for the DNR, said the permit system and database have helped reveal just how popular tournament fishing is. "What's interesting is where all the tournaments occur and how much money, time, and effort is devoted to them."

2010 Fishing Tournament Fast Facts

Of the 595 approved tournaments, 61 percent were so-called traditional tournaments. A traditional fishing tournament is one that was issued permits 4 out of 5 years between 2004 and 2008 for the same water or waters and time period.

Tournament permits are required when any of the following apply: the tournament involves 20 or more boats, or 100 or more participants; targets any trout species on waters classified as trout streams; has a catch-hold-release format with an off-site weigh-in; or the total prize value is $10,000 or greater.

A full copy of the 2010 report is available on the fishing tournaments page of DNR website.

Ice fishing tournament organizers reminded to apply for a permit

Organizers of ice fishing tournaments will want to apply for a permit for their 2011 event as soon as possible -- applications must be submitted at least 30 days before their event.

And organizers of all tournaments -- open water and hard water -- can apply for permits for 2012 events as soon as April 1, 2011.

That's when the open period for applying for 2012 events starts, and it runs through June 30, 2011. Organizers applying during that the open period have the best chance of getting their desired dates and waters for 2012 events, says Hansen.

After April 1, permits are available on a first-come, first-serve basis so there is the potential of not getting the day and water desired, although that hasn't been a problem in the first two years of the permit system, Hansen says.

All applications received during the open period will be reviewed by Aug. 1, 2011, and in the unlikely event that another tournament conflicts with an organizer's choice of dates or waters, DNR fisheries biologists will discuss options with the tournament organizers, Griffin says.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Joanna Griffin (608) 264-8953; Jon Hansen (608) 266-6883

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Go Green this holiday season

Want to be a little greener this year? You might ask yourself "What would Santa do?" After all, he's one busy dude during one of the world's big holidays. And, it turns out he's a pretty good example of taking a few small steps to save money and be kind to mother nature, even during the busy holiday seasons. So follow in Santa's steps and...

See the DNR website for more information on how you can Do a Little... Save a Lot! this winter.

FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: Mary Hamel (608) 267-7409

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Read more: Previous Weekly News

Last Revised: Tuesday, December 14, 2010




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The Office of Communications connects journalists with DNR experts on a wide range of topics. For the fastest response, please email DNRPress@Wisconsin.gov and the first available Communications Specialist will respond to you.