Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Photo of algae-laden water surrounding a pier © Will Stites

Excess phosphorus flowing into lakes provides nutrients that can spur weed and algae growth in Wisconsin waters.
© Will Stites

August 2010

Less P is key

Controlling phosphorus remains a key to improving health and water quality.

Lisa Gaumnitz

Peggy and Mike McAloon's retirement home overlooking Tainter Lake in Dunn County is everything they dreamed about – for eight months of the year.

Towering pines ring the home, eagles soar overhead, and deer and wild turkey frequently linger in front of their picture windows.

"It's got to be one of the most perfect spots in the world," says Peggy McAloon, enjoying a sunny May day from a lawn chair on her deck. "But by June 15, the lake will be green with algae, and by August, it [looks like] a toxic waste dump. The stench is unbearable, and if you have existing health problems, it can be very dangerous."

She struggled to breathe after spending days working as a volunteer boat inspector at a boat launch on the lake."

Suddenly, I'm up in the middle of the night and I can't breathe. My throat would literally close up," McAloon recalled recently. "It was very scary."

She got an inhaler and stopped inspecting boats, but her breathing difficulties continued, and McAloon suspects the algae may be behind a flare-up in her lupus.

"Now I pretty much stay inside with the air conditioning on and run to the car," she says. "I've lost everything here, from a health and economic standpoint. I can't sell the house. And yet for eight months of the year, it's the most beautiful place in the world."

McAloon's health concerns and conundrum are shared by many Wisconsinites. Last year, 35 people reported human health concerns and the death of at least two dogs related to blue-green algae. Human health effects ranged from skin rashes and gastrointestinal problems after swimming, waterskiing or coming into contact with the water, to acute respiratory distress, fever, sore throats, and gastrointestinal problems from the ammonia and hydrogen sulfide gas coming off the decomposing algae.

"It's a source of concern because these are toxins we know can have health effects and because it's a concern we get often from local health departments and natural resource agencies," says Mark Werner, PhD, supervisor of the Environmental and Occupational Epidemiology Unit. The state health department is entering its second year of tracking such complaints as part of a five-year national study funded by the Centers for Disease Control in Wisconsin and nine other states.

A 2004-05 DNR study found high concentrations of blue-green algae in all regions of the state. The highest toxicities were documented in 31 waters including eight of the state's biggest, most popular lakes.

"We don't have to have this occurring in our state," says Buzz Sorge, a veteran DNR lakes specialist who works in western Wisconsin.

"Our science is telling us that we can alleviate these water quality symptoms with good watershed management from agricultural, urban runoff and point sources. We just need the political will and the social will to get it done. We aren't asking for a pristine condition – we're asking for fishable, swimmable water," Sorge says. "We don't want our children swimming in toxic blue-green algae and we don't want people getting sick just by being near a lake."

Too much of a good thing – in the wrong place

Phosphorus is an essential nutrient. It occurs naturally, mainly as phosphate, and has been mined for use in fertilizer, detergent and animal feed. It's in our food, in our waste, and in that of other animals. Too much phosphorus fuels excessive plant and algal growth. That can result in harmful algal blooms, changes in food webs, decreased water clarity and poorer water quality that can harm aquatic life and discourage swimming and other recreation.

"The amount of nutrients entering our waters has dramatically escalated over the past 50 years and nutrients now pose significant water quality and public health concerns across the United States," according to An Urgent Call to Action, an August 2009 report of the State-EPA Nutrient Innovations Task Group.

Even more disturbing, the report says as our population increases, the rate and impact of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution will accelerate, "potentially diminishing even further our progress to date."

Photo of DNR employee monitoring phosphorus levels © DNR File Photo
Phosphorus levels are monitored from culverts, streams, lakes and rivers.
© DNR File Photo

In Wisconsin, most phosphorus entering our lakes and streams comes from "nonpoint" or "runoff" pollution. Within that category, farms contribute the most, when heavy rains and melting snow wash over farm fields and feedlots carrying fertilizer, manure and soil into lakes and streams.

Phosphorus also comes from stormwater runoff from urban areas; from the "point sources" – piped wastes such as municipal and industrial wastewater treatment plants that release liquid effluent to lakes and rivers or spread sludge on fields; and from natural sources, including past phosphorus loads that build up in lake bottom sediments.

How much these sources contribute to phosphorus problems in a lake or river can vary widely dependent on land use in a watershed and the number of point sources discharging into that lake or river.

For instance, about 80 percent of the phosphorus load to Tainter Lake in Dunn County comes from agricultural runoff. Such runoff is responsible for closer to half of the phosphorus load to the Petenwell and Castle Rock flowages, impoundments of the Wisconsin River where harmful algal blooms have been a problem and where there are many point sources. The Fox River at Waukesha receives the lion's share of its phosphorus load from point source discharges into the river and from urban stormwater from growing communities including Waukesha, Brookfield and Sussex.

"To achieve clean water, we need to look at how we deal with all of the sources," says Jim Baumann, a longtime DNR water quality engineer. "We need additional phosphorus controls on both point sources and nonpoint sources."

A watershed summer for Wisconsin lakes and rivers

In recent years, Wisconsin has enacted a ban on phosphorus-based lawn fertilizer, a new phosphate ban for dishwasher detergents, rules curbing urban stormwater, and rules to further reduce phosphorus runoff from large-scale farms and feedlots known as CAFOs, particularly during rain and melting snow.

This summer, other key components are being put in place. In June, the state Natural Resources Board approved proposals to better control phosphorus from farms and from wastewater treatment plants, Baumann says. Those rule proposals have been sent to the Legislature for its review.

They call for farmers to curb phosphorus potentially coming off their fields to an eight-year average that factors in land slope, phosphorus levels in their soil and average precipitation levels. After additional rulemaking, farmers in watersheds where an impaired lake or river has a cleanup plan may be required to meet more stringent standards.

Provisions affecting wastewater dischargers would limit phosphorus levels in lakes, rivers, reservoirs and the Great Lakes so the water can still support fish and other aquatic life. Limits have reduced phosphorus loads significantly, but some waters still have levels that are too high.

The idea is to determine how much phosphorus a waterbody can assimilate, then calculate what each source contributes and determine how much each must reduce to keep phosphorus levels under that limit.

Many wastewater dischargers won't have to reduce their phosphorus levels much, particularly in northern Wisconsin, where there is less industry, less farming and extensive forests to help keep the soil on the land. Other areas will have to reduce the phosphorus load they send downstream.

Some progress on the farm, but not enough

Eighty years of concerted effort by farmers, state, federal and local conservation officials, extension agents and natural resource staff have significantly cut soil loss from the Dust Bowl days but we have not achieved water quality goals set by society, says Pat Murphy, state resource conservationist for the Wisconsin branch of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Gordon Stevenson, who leads DNR's runoff management program, and other DNR water quality officials interviewed echoed that sobering assessment. They point to a bumper crop of factors, including:

  • Farm conservation programs are voluntary. Government programs give farmers technical and financial help to install conservation practices that must be maintained for a period of time, typically 5, 10 or 15 years but are not required to be permanent. Even Wisconsin runoff rules cannot be enforced unless funds are available to pay the farmer 70 percent of the cost of the new conservation practices.
  • Until now, the standard measure of tolerable soil loss, "T," was based on maintaining soil and crop productivity, not necessarily on keeping water clean. Now concerns are growing that "T" may need to be further reduced to protect soil and water quality.
  • Too much phosphorus on the land, particularly from manure spread during spring thaw when weather and field conditions cause runoff. Only one-fifth of Wisconsin's nine million acres of cropland follow nutrient management plans that consider soil phosphorus levels and other factors in guiding where, when and how much manure and fertilizers farmers apply.
  • Farm conservation practices have not been adopted widely enough to fully protect or restore water quality.
  • Federal farm subsidy programs provide a safety net primarily for row crops like corn and soybeans, which have a higher risk of erosion and require more fertilizer and pesticides to produce. Hay and other forage crops that keep soil in place have traditionally not qualified for federal subsidies. A trend toward specialization in crop production and the retirement of many dairy farmers has decreased hay acreage by 50 percent over the last 40 years.
  • More farmers rent cropland from absentee landowners now, often resulting in neither renters nor landowners willing to pay for conservation practices.
  • A spike in commodity prices in 2007-08 coupled with more rigid requirements for maintaining land in the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) may have spurred some landowners to drop out of CRP, which pays them to keep highly sensitive land out of production.
  • Inadequate funding for the technical help to plan and install conservation practices has spread current staff ever thinner as farms and conservation programs increase in size and complexity.
  • Global market pressures, highly volatile crop prices and the need to cut production costs to the absolute minimum press farmers to focus on the bottom line and less on conservation.

The net result, Murphy says, is that Wisconsin's soil loss is on the rise again. "Typical tolerable soil loss (T) in Wisconsin is 3 to 5 tons per acre per year. Erosion rates had dropped to 3.7 tons per acre per year during the heyday of CRP. Now we're back to losing an average of 4.4 tons per acre per year."

That average rate of soil erosion could increase as global climate change brings more frequent heavy rains, according to a draft report from a committee of UW, state and other experts on soil conservation. The current toolbox of conservation practices can meet this challenge if practices are more widely adopted by farmers. If not, soil erosion in Wisconsin may more than double by 2050 compared with 1990 rates, the report says.

University of Wisconsin research suggests that inappropriate farming practices on a small number of vulnerable fields are responsible for most of the problems. Mapping, modeling and monitoring tools have all advanced to make it easier to identify such fields, Stevenson says.

If the new rules adopted by the Natural Resources Board clear the Legislature, the DNR and partners can focus advice and cost-sharing funds to those vulnerable farms whose participation is vital to improving water quality, Stevenson says. Farmers will have to come into compliance and stay in compliance with the new phosphorus limits. If the farmers are not willing to accept cost-sharing and use these practices, the phosphorus rules could be enforced.

"If all goes well, there will be parity now between point sources and nonpoint sources, and conservation practices will be there for the long-term," Stevenson says.

Murphy says that the next generation of conservation programs must target vulnerable fields and offer subsidies for adopting conservation practices, not just to protect market prices for row crops. The Conservation Stewardship Program now offered to agricultural producers statewide has begun this shift.

Effective enforcement of existing environmental laws would provide an immediate improvement too. Murphy says the key will be if people demand action as phosphorus discharges to lakes and rivers continue to impair water quality and reduce the public's ability to enjoy public places.

"Society and the citizenry are going to have to make it clear they expect a certain level of water quality," Murphy said. "They are also going to have to be willing to pay for it."

A new approach to tackle a long-standing problem

There are signs of progress in individual watersheds, and Tainter Lake may just lead the way.

he watershed is poised to become one of the first in Wisconsin where all the point and nonpoint sources of phosphorus will be accounted for and a portion of what the waterways can accommodate will be apportioned among the pollution sources says Ken Schreiber, the DNR water quality planner helping lead that process. The 15 point sources that discharge into the watershed have already cut their total phosphorus levels by 70 percent since 1990.

The city of Menomonie in recent years has been implementing an aggressive plan to cut stormwater runoff to reduce sediment entering the lake by 40 percent by 2013.

The Tainter/Menomin Lake Improvement Association has focused on developing a coalition of all stakeholders within the Red Cedar Watershed and increasing political awareness, says Robyn Morin, association president. They invited Sen. Russ Feingold to the lake in late summer to see and smell the algae, and they've been constantly in contact with local politicians. Locals are organizing an economic study of how lake degradation is depressing real estate values around the lake and in the area, consequently reducing property taxes and local government revenue.

Photo of no-till soybeans © Lance Klessig
No-till soybeans planted between rows of corn stubble hold more soil in place and minimuze the flow of runoff and nutrients during rainfall.
© Lance Klessig

Perhaps the biggest signs of new success, however, are the tender shoots of corn poking through grass sod on a warm late May day on a farm in the Town of Grant.

Farmers who participated in a pilot project are using no-till and conservation tillage to minimize soil erosion. In "no-till" farmers plant seeds without first turning over the soil with a plow; each new crop is planted into the residue left from the previous crop. Some farmers even invested in updating their current planters, says Lance Klessig, a Dunn County conservation planner and a catalyst in the project.

He and Melanie Baumgart of the River Country Resource Conservation and Development Council met one-on-one with farmers in the township in 2007-08 to find out why they did not adopt conservation practices or enroll in government conservation programs. They learned which practices the farmers would be most likely to adopt if barriers could be overcome. Project partners rented a no-till soybean drill for the farmers to use in 2009, paid an operator to custom plant no-till corn that year and paid all costs to sample soil for phosphorus levels. Field days at no-till farms gave other interested farmers and neighbors the chance to see and ask questions about these cropping methods.

Close monitoring of fields and yields turned up good news: "In general, no-till yields were comparable or slightly less, but the profit per acre is more favorable because planting and field maintenance take fewer passes and use less fuel," Klessig says.

He sells the no-till practices to farmers as a way to improve their profitability and enjoy a higher quality of life because they can spend more time with their family and less time on the tractor during planting season.

Perhaps the most important lessons he's learned are to change how to do business. Rather than waiting to work with the farmers who walk through their doors, conservation agents go knocking door to door and leave fliers when no one is home.

We make it easier and convenient to participate, Klessig explained. Cooperative agreements are only one page. We hold meetings at town halls, not at government offices, and we always provide food. If invited, we'll join in at dinner time and ride shotgun on the tractor or combine. The most important thing "was real honesty and getting to know farmers on a personal level," he says. "I'm here to help you. I want to learn more and I want you to teach me."

Peggy McAloon takes heart from such approaches. She knows the problems on Tainter Lake won't be solved overnight or likely for several years at best.

"It's everybody's problem. I just pray this state embraces the problem and sits down and discusses things and doesn't point fingers," says McAloon, who herself has been actively involved in researching the issues and participating through the lake association.

"It's not city, versus country. Everybody can do a little bit, and some can do a little bit more. We've got so little fresh water in the world; we have to protect what we've got."

Lisa Gaumnitz is public affairs manager for DNR's water programs.