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There's Something in the Water
Education, legislation aim to keep Wisconsin's waterways clean

MaryJo Fitzgerald

Gene Dellinger scoops live suckers out of his holding tanks, entertaining fellow fishermen with tales of 40-inch pike. Water splashes as he drops live bait into his customer’s 10-gallon white pail inside D&S Bait, Tackle & Archery, his small shop on Madison’s north side. But unlike past fall fishing seasons, when Dellinger served his customers with wild bait he caught in the fertile streams of southern Wisconsin, this year Dellinger can no longer provide this service. A virus – Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia – has struck.

It has not entered his body, but Wisconsin’s streams.

Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia is the newest invasive species to attack Wisconsin waterways and is forcing fishermen like Dellinger to fish for bait only in tested waters. VHS limits what he catches and increases how much he spends to catch it.

While his is just one tackle shop, and he is one fisherman seeking wild bait, it points to a larger problem. Wisconsin’s waterways have been infected with invasive species for decades, surging in when the St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959. Invasive species, however, are not the only problem. Agricultural runoff and overabundant algae blooms also perpetuate unhealthy lakes in a state dependent on its water for both sustenance and recreation.

While water quality threatens Wisconsin lakes, residents can find comfort in the fact that the quantity of water in the lakes is finally protected. In October 2008 a decade-long battle over water quantity was put to rest with the passage of The Great Lakes Compact. The compact prevents other nations or states from removing water from the world’s largest freshwater resource, a triumph for water-related legislature in Wisconsin. The compact also suggests states bordering the Great Lakes move forward with water quality improvement plans but provides no deadline for completing such plans.

“The Great Lakes are a vast resource, but they are very fragile. … The compact was a great example of everyone coming together to address future problems,” says Marc Smith of the National Wildlife Federation. Smith and other environmental advocates praise this new legislation but hope it propels Wisconsin’s stakeholders to move toward similar water quality legislation.

With over 15,000 inland lakes and two bordering Great Lakes, water quality affects everyone in Wisconsin – not just fishermen.

When she was young, Melissa Malott, the Water Program Director for Clean Wisconsin, got pink eye from swimming downstream from a farm. She wasn’t the only one to fall ill from the water. Malott recalls a wave of sickness that struck many members of the Mad City Ski Team last summer after they practiced in Lake Wisconsin.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Water Quality Report for 2002, agricultural runoff, like that which led to Malott’s pink eye, is the second biggest lake polluter in the United States after “unknown” causes.

In a state where not only farming but also constructional development is highly prevalent, manure, fertilizer and sediment constantly wash into the water bodies. This leads to unsafe waters, thick algae blooms and deterioration of aquatic habitats. Even if production of runoff stopped, Malott says, its legacy would continue for centuries.

Action taken now, however, can affect quality for future generations. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and others are educating people about changing their behaviors. Fishing license holders receive pamphlets about how to prevent contaminating other waters when moving from lake to lake. Phil Moy, Outreach Specialist for Fisheries and Aquatic Nuisance Species with the Sea Grant Institute, sends people to boat landings to inform boaters. Billboards line Wisconsin highways while radio and television ads catch other lake users. Farmers and builders have strict guidelines and permits they must attain to limit harmful runoff, unlike many states, as Malott suggests, that do not regulate factory farms at all.

Beyond public education lies the need for permanent water quality legislation. Although the compact was a big step, it was a hard-fought battle. Stakeholders like Malott anticipate another fight for quality-driven legislation.

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