Top Wisconsin Environmental Stories Of 2016

Dec 30, 2016

Environmental issues were plentiful this year.  From Waukesha water to a retooled DNR, WUWM looks at a few that will continue to vertebrate in 2017.

Waukesha Water

Close to the spot on the Root River Waukesha plans to discharge treated water on its way back to Lake Michigan.
Credit Susan Bence

Waukesha has to replace its well water because it’s tainted with radium. The city built its solution around a daily allotment of about ten million gallons of water from Lake Michigan, and that meant winning permission from the states that border the lake, because Waukesha sits outside its basin.

After years of deliberation, the Wisconsin DNR kicked off 2016 by forwarding the application to the other seven Great Lakes states.

Hundreds of people turned out for a hearing. While many urged just say no, an equal number supported the diversion with equal passion.

“I come from a family of avid hunters and fishermen, who have been watching this project unfold. We are concerned about Wisconsin’s wildlife, lakes and rivers and believe the project is the best option with the least impact on wetlands and other natural resources,” one supporter said.

DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp surrounded by media after the vote. "It’s just a privilege to be the first one out of the gate to demonstrate how well it (Great Lakes Compact) can work," Stepp said.
Credit Susan Bence

A few months later, Waukesha won its request – with some modification – less water and a trimmed service area.

David Ullrich expressed dismay. He represents an alliance of more than 120 U.S. and Canadian mayors.

“We feel that they have not followed the terms of the Compact. If you start loosely interpreting an exception, you are opening the door wide to every straddling county and city around the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence. I’d be astonished if there aren’t lawsuits filed,” Ullrich said.

In August Ullrich’s group took a step toward legal challenge – it requested a hearing before the Compact Council.

Deferred Maintenance in Milwaukee County
 

Public had there chance to express thoughts on future of The Domes at February 24 gathering.
Credit Susan Bence

In Milwaukee County, leaders continued to grapple with a wealth of parkland and absence of maintenance dollars.

A pre-teen named Arthur Capps worried when the Mitchell Park horticultural domes closed in February, after crumbling concrete raised concerns.

“It’s a work of art in an historic structure and some of the plants are historic themselves. It’s like a zoo except for plants – we need to preserve the domes,” he said.

The iconic beehive-shaped structures are again welcoming guests, but Capps’ wish to preserve the domes remains uncertain.

Tension ran high at March 22 public hearing about future of Estabrook Dam.
Credit Susan Bence

Seven miles north on the Milwaukee River, the county is responsible for another deteriorating structure – the Estabrook Dam.

Reggie Hayes would like to see it repaired and the impoundment it created restored. He first started fishing above the dam, in the 1970s.

“I walked to that river/lake as a kid and fish until I left and went to college,” he explains. “So it has great value to myself and a lot of my friends.”

Below the dam, Paul Zovic of Shorewood supports the dam’s removal.

“It’s unfortunate that something with as big of a financial to the entire county and as big of an environment impact has become such a political issue,” he said.

In October, County Executive Chris Abele announced plans to transfer the Estabrook Dam to the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District. It would remove the dam. Stay tuned.

Changes To The DNR

A retooled Department of Natural Resources is on the horizon. It could mean fewer researchers working out of the Bureau of Science Services, and instead, scattering throughout divisions.

Vir-Clar dairy operation in Fond du Lac county.
Credit Susan Bence

The DNR’s ability to monitor water quality – especially where large dairy operations are multiplying – already has some people on high alert.

Farmers spread manure on fields, and if conditions and quantities are not quite right, they risk polluting ground and surface water.

Grant Grinstead milks 1,800 cows in Fond du Lac County.

“Our permit is renewed every five years,” he explains. “Every year we submit in documentation about how we operated the dairy and then of course every five years is a big stack of paperwork that goes in. And the DNR is out here with us yearly. We have an open door policy with the Wisconsin DNR.”

Runoff in Kewaunee County
Credit Lynn Utesch

Lynn Utesch paints a different picture in Kewaunee County, where more than one-third of private wells are contaminated.

In summer, the DNR announced plans to strengthen for manure spreading. Utesch says they aren’t even close to being strong enough.

“It should be an emergency rulemaking package – human health emergency. We are going to have to wait for three to five years…. We have waited for years,” she said.

Recently changes on the agency’s website raised some eyebrows.  The DNR quietly removed language that stated human activity is the main cause of climate change.  In fact, the term “climate change” disappeared.

Lead In Water

In June, Milwaukee found itself on an unenviable list of 33 U.S. cities. The Guardian accused them of concealing dangerous levels of lead in drinking water – because of faulty testing methods.

Mayor Tom Barrett insisted the city has been on top of its lead pipes situation. Four months earlier the city sent letters to residents living in homes built before 1951 – a time when lead pipes were commonplace.

“So we sent that out in early February to the 70,000 dwellers… to tell them steps they should be taking. And the simplest step, let your water run 3 to 5 minutes if it’s been sitting in the pipes for a while,” he said. “And again, we did that because I felt it was a public health concern. There was no reason to hold back that information. As soon as we were certain of the information, I said ‘Let that letter go.’”

In September, Barrett might have even caught himself by surprise when he advised residents with lead service lines to install water filters.

Virginia Tech researcher Marc Edwards spoke at Marquette University on September 7, along with Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
Credit Susan Bence

Marc Edwards likely influenced the move. The Virginia Tech researcher brought world attention to Flint, Michigan’s lead-contaminated water.

Mayor Barrett’s issued his advice about filters, moments after he and Edwards spoke at a drinking water conference at Marquette University.

Edwards extended cautious praise that Milwaukee might be “getting its act together.”

“Especially given its history… hiding lead in water problems and not acknowledging them as a health threat,” he said. “That at least since early this year, being honest about this problem, and further acknowledging that as long as lead pipes are there, the water is not safe for vulnerable populations.”

In 2017, Milwaukee will roll out a new ordinance. It requires homeowners to replace their lead pipes, if a rupture occurs in the water system outside.

We will watch this and other environmental issues unfold, in the New Year.

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