Phosphorus legal settlement will make the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway better
Jan 15, 2015
A small but critical step has been taken to improve the health of the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway with the implementation of a conservation project resulting from the settlement of an environmental lawsuit.
The lawsuit, brought on behalf of concerned citizens by Midwest Environmental Advocates (MEA) against Richland Center Renewable Energy, LLC, challenged a water pollution permit approved by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for a dairy wastewater treatment facility in Richland Center. It was believed the treatment facility would produce excess phosphorus and other nutrients that would make their way into the Lower Wisconsin Riverway.
The settlement agreement, reached in 2013, included a plan for the renewable energy company to both reduce its own phosphorus output as well as tackle nonpoint sources of pollution along the river through conservation easement projects implemented by the river protection group Friends of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway (FLOW) and the Driftless Area Land Conservancy (DALC).
With $50,000 from Richland Center Renewable Energy, LLC, as part of the settlement, FLOW recently facilitated the purchase of agricultural development rights through a permanent conservation easement on 11 acres of former cropland adjacent to Norton Slough, northeast of Spring Green. The sale of the easement to the Driftless Area Land Conservancy by owners Doug and Sherryl Jones also includes a five-year lease agreement that will make a groundwater monitoring and buffer efficacy research project possible.
Attorney Mark Rooney, who conducted the closing between FLOW, DALC, and the Joneses, said it’s an example of litigation that ended in a win-win settlement. He noted it’s rare these days, but an innovative Wisconsin business and conservation groups are working together to make the river better.
Oxbow lakes, otherwise known as sloughs, are ecologically important features of high-quality rivers. The vast network of sloughs is a major reason why the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway is one of the most biologically diverse large river ecosystems in the Midwest. However, studies have shown that agricultural fertilizer is leaching into groundwater, carrying harmful nutrients, particularly nitrates, into the sloughs, causing adverse health effects on fish and other aquatic life and raising the risk to the overall health of the Lower Wisconsin River itself.
Dave Marshall, an aquatic ecologist and FLOW board member, believes that creating buffer areas with deep-rooted native plants can help restore the sloughs to be optimal filtration ponds. The Jones have been creating and expanding such a buffer for several years, and have seen the water quality improve in Norton Slough as a result.
For Doug Jones, their commitment harks back to his days as a Boy Scout. He says he was taught “If you come to a place like a campsite, you should leave it in better condition than you found it.” He and Sherryl believe their land and the river itself should be made better by their efforts.
For Marshall and FLOW, they are excited that this project can be the start of ongoing efforts to improve the quality of the oxbow lakes along the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway and potentially to influence Department of Natural Resources water management policies for the river.