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Wetlands, runoff drawing attention
Lake Michigan conference looks at PCBs, E. coli
By Paul Brinkmann
Green Bay Press Gazette

In 1994, research showed habitat loss and non-native species - not PCBs - were the top problems in the bay of Green Bay.

Since then, the PCB problem has gained a lot of attention, but issues like stormwater runoff and loss of natural habitats may require far-reaching efforts in many regions to fix.

Working regionally was the focus of a water quality conference Thursday at the KI Convention Center in downtown Green Bay. The event was called the Northeast Wisconsin & Lake Michigan Watershed Planning Conference.

"I think it was a surprise that PCBs were not the top-ranking problem," said Victoria Harris, water quality specialist with University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. "The number one problems are worse than PCBs because they are irreversible. When you eliminate habitat or introduce a new species, it’s almost impossible to fix that."

Conference attendees included about 65 environmental experts and local government officials from eight counties in the Bay-Lake Regional Planning Commission’s territory, including Brown, Door and Kewaunee. Many said they appreciated the regional focus and learned from each other.

"It’s nice to see how the bigger communities are tackling these issues," said Brennan Haworth, a specialist with Oconto County’s Land Conservation Division.

The conference is part of growing efforts to foster cooperation on regional water quality issues. The Bay-Lake region was the first to hold a conference under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Lake Michigan Management Plan, a collaboration of four states, 10 tribes and six federal agencies.

"We have some big problems confronting Lake Michigan," said Judy Beck, Lake Michigan manager with the U.S. EPA Region 5 in Chicago. "We’re here to learn about each other and copy from each other."

Stormwater questions

A flooded back yard drove Suamico village President Thomas Lund into politics and onto the podium at Thursday’s convention.

Lund told the conference Suamico has struggled to identify where its stormwater comes from and where it goes. The former town - now a village - spent $100,000 over three years on an engineering firm. One of its findings was that U.S. 41 creates a backwash because it cuts across the normal drainage pattern and has few culverts.

Lund said seeing how other cities have dealt with stormwater issues was important to him, especially when Susan Olson, Appleton Public Works Department, said she’s dealt with similar problems.

Haworth said he also appreciated Olson’s comments, especially learning that Appleton has considered controlling the type of fertilizer used in the city to help lower phosphorus contamination in lakes. Too much phosphorus can lead to algae blooms.

Beaches on center stage

Bacteria on local beaches was another top regional issue.

Especially interesting to many were Sandra McClellan’s comments that high readings of E. coli bacteria, the best-known indicator of contamination, doesn’t necessarily mean humans will get sick. If the bacteria is coming from seagulls, for example, human diseases may not be present.

McClellan, assistant scientist with the state’s Great Lakes Water Institute in Milwaukee, is now trying to determine if human disease germs linger in water after bacteria die. She also said beach bacteria test results in Milwaukee don’t reflect overall lake quality.

"I had no idea her research had gone that far," Door County Board Chairman Charlie Most Jr. said.

Three Door County officials, including Sturgeon Bay Mayor Colleen Crocker-MacMillin, gave a summary of their experience with beach-related illnesses last year, better monitoring results this year, and ongoing efforts to identify the sources of bacteria on 31 beaches on the peninsula.

Drinking water access

The level of Northeast Wisconsin’s aquifers - underground water reserves - is dropping at a rate three feet per year, Madeline Gotkowitz, hydrogeologist with Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, told the conference.

Aquifer depletion here is not as serious as in the Milwaukee area, which is dropping at 7 feet per year, but Northeastern Wisconsin could face serious problems if the levels continue to drop, she said.

"If you continue to rely on groundwater, you’re going to dry out your aquifer," Gotkowitz said.

Gotkowitz also mentioned the recent collapse of talks between suburbs and Green Bay about regional cooperation. She said waiting any longer to switch over to lake water from well water could seriously damage the aquifer because lower levels likely will speed up increases in contaminants such as arsenic and radium.

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