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Great Lakes Article:

Improving, yes, but waters far from clear
C
onference considers health of lake, bay
By Mike Hoeft
mhoeft@greenbaypressgazette.com
Green Bay Press Gazette
Published November 3, 2005

Can you drink it? Can you swim in it? Can you eat fish caught from it?

Despite signs of improvements in water quality, it still can be unsafe to do any of them in Green Bay and Lake Michigan, researchers said Wednesday.

That was the pollution bottom line that was shared with about 150 people who gathered at the KI Convention Center in Green Bay for a three-day State of Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes Beach conferences.

The conferences coincided with the International Joint Commission’s public meeting Tuesday on the review of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the United States and Canada.

Michigan toxicologist Shannon Briggs, president of the Great Lakes Beach Association, said that because of more monitoring and research, scientists have a better understanding of bacteria sources, runoff pollution and management strategies.

Yet it’s a fairly depressing picture, said Judy Beck of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The State of Lake Michigan is a mix of positive and negative changes, with new challenges developing, she said.

The lake is “an outstanding natural resource of global significance under stress and in need of special attention,” she said.

While water quality has improved, the watershed is in trouble for various reasons. The Fox River is one of 10 areas of concern to the EPA, largely because of a legacy of PCB contamination.

Victoria Harris of the Sea Grant Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay said PCBs in sediment pose the greatest risk to human health and wildlife.

The Fox River in Brown County contains 7.5 million cubic yards of PCB-contaminated sediments, far more than estimated by regulators in 2003 when several paper companies were given a cleanup mandate.

Polychlorinated biphenyls were released into the river by seven area paper mills from about 1954 to 1971. PCBs are implicated in a range of health problems in humans. Cleanup of the Fox River will include dredging the sediment, as well as capping PCB hot spots.

Wisconsin has a fish-consumption advisory on every lake and stream in the state due to elevated levels of mercury in all fish and more restrictive advice on 84 lakes for even higher levels of mercury.

Other threats stem from nutrient-rich runoff that flows into the bay to produce the micro-algae cladophora, making beaches unsightly and smelly. Beaches are closed when E. coli levels are large enough to make people seriously ill.

Lower Green Bay water has been unsuitable as a drinking-water source for decades. While Marinette draws drinking water from the bay, the city of Green Bay has piped Lake Michigan water since 1957.

Surrounding communities have seriously drawn down the groundwater and are now building a lake pipeline to Manitowoc.

John Paul, Brown County Health Department environmental and laboratory manager, said water quality often is taken for granted.

“We should be more aware of efforts to protect the resource,” Paul said.

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