Midwest Environmental Advocates is a nonprofit environmental law center that works for healthy water, air, land and government for this generation and the next. We believe that every citizen has the potential to make a difference.

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Why Water Crises in Toledo and the Gulf Matter to the Upper Midwest

Aug 07, 2014

With Toledo's water crisis and the perpetual dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico in the news, Midwest Environmental Advocates Executive Director Kim Wright reflects on water quality and quantity in the upper Midwest, why citizens are concerned about basic public health protections, and a pending decision in Wisconsin government that could shut citizen voices out of protecting from future crises.

How Water Protection Systems are Broken in Wisconsin

Common sense, personal experience, concern for future generations’ rights and sound science are still the best guideposts for balancing the wants of today with the needs of the future of our natural heritage. In 1927, Aldo Leopold urged the Wisconsin Legislature to place the responsibility of hiring and firing the secretary of what is now the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Leopold reminded lawmakers that our water, air and land are the building blocks of all opportunity and that the interests of future generations required sound science, not short political cycles, as the measure of our trust responsibility.

For 70 years, a citizen board appointed the Secretary who managed the DNR and who was responsible for the day-to-day operations of the statewide agency. The Natural Resources Board was, and still is for the moment, responsible for setting overall policy direction in keeping with Wisconsin’s laws and constitution. Wisconsin led the way nationally in creating processes that included a meaningful role for ordinary people to participate in making decisions that impact their health and the opportunities of future generations.

It’s no newsflash to anyone who has paid attention for the past 10 years, but special interest politics and industry lobbies are largely driving policy development, implementation and enforcement of the public health standards that require controls on dangerous pollution. This is increasingly true for Wisconsin and most of the nation.

Then comes Toledo…

When I heard the people of Toledo, a city the size of Madison, couldn’t drink, cook with, or bathe in their tap water due to toxins from massive, harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie, I thought of the people I know in Wisconsin who can’t drink their well water. Even though there are many, many families around Wisconsin with dangerously high nitrates and coliform bacteria in their wells, somehow it is more shocking to hear of a city water supply going bad.

The PBS News Hour had this report on the Toledo water crisis which both explains how the city got to its emergency point, and how the water problems impacted people's daily lives (worth the 9-minutes to watch):

Most people I know believe their government protects their drinking water. One of the biggest gains in extending life spans of Americans was the sanitation of public drinking water sources. Of course our government is vigilant and tooled with the resources needed to protect the very water we drink, right?

Common sense and sound science would lead us to use all the information and experience we have to increase our effectiveness in protecting our precious shared waters, right? Why at this critical juncture of history, with increasing challenges from a changing climate and growing concerns about the abundance and quality of water worldwide, would we degrade the systems that have repaired and protected our water commons?

The attack on professional natural resource managers, through under resourcing and restrictions on professional judgment and experience as factors in decision making, has led to a continuous decline in the capacity of the good men and women in government to do their jobs. Both major political parties in our state have passed terrible laws restricting citizens’ rights to have a say in how our natural heritage is being stewarded for future generations’ needs.

Citizen Voices Matter: Our Environmental Protection Act Needs Its Own Protection Now

Ordinary people are the only ones who have consistently protected the rights of future generations to clean water, air and land. Love and responsibility motivates us to guard against those powers who would steal today what our grandchildren will need tomorrow. 

This is why it is so important to the mission of Midwest Environmental Advocates that we support citizens whose concerns must be heard when the laws we have put in place to protect our environmental commons could be weakened. One of those pivotal moments is happening right now.

The Wisconsin Environmental Protection Act, and related rules called NR 150 (PDF), governs the standards for issuing public notice on proposed development projects that have the potential for significant harm to public health and on the scope of projects’ scientific review. But on Wednesday, August 13th in Hayward, DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp will ask the state Natural Resources Board for emergency rulemaking (PDF) to amend NR 150. Policy makers and the public spent years developing this administrative rule (MEA weighed in on proposed changes back in May of last year) and finalized it only this last April. Now, the DNR Secretary, through the guise of “housekeeping,” declares an emergency situation to make more changes geared to eliminating citizens’ voices.

I very much want to know who spoke with DNR leadership and others about pushing for changes of a rule completed months ago after years of a proper public process. I am very disturbed that our government is treating a rule so intricately intertwined with the rights of the public as an emergency to eliminate a proper, open process for changing fundamental public rights in the environment. On Friday, August 8, we submitted our comments to the Natural Resources Board urging them to reject the proposed rule amendments.

Why do changes in NR 150 matter?

Ask folks in Toledo how they feel waking up and finding out they can’t even boil their water to make it usable. Think of a household with three sticky young kids and having to haul gallons and gallons of water home just to wash their hands. They are the people who feel the impact when we weaken water protection polices, leave their voices out of the process, and let industry pollute our water with “nutrients.”

The word nutrient sounds so wholesome, but phosphorus is one of the major drivers of excessive algae production. Agricultural runoff and excess nutrients from chemical fertilizer fuel the algal blooms that poisoned Toledo’s water. Here in parts of Wisconsin, we see massive quantities of untreated animal sewage spread throughout the landscape. I remember when phosphorus was removed from laundry detergent and other household cleaners to try and resuscitate Lake Erie. Headlines proclaimed Lake Erie is Dead. Déjà vu all over again for folks in Toledo.

Coinciding with Toledo’s water disaster was the results of the annual study of the size of the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Phosphorus running from farm fields into the Mississippi River collectively creates an area in the Gulf so devoid of oxygen that aquatic life that happens to drift in dies from asphyxiation. This year, the dead zone in the Gulf is the size of Connecticut.

If it is too hard to imagine the direct connection from Wisconsin runoff to the dead zone in the Gulf, consider our own growing dead zone in Lake Michigan’s Green Bay. Phosphorus and other pollutants have resulted in dark hole of lifelessness in what was once one of the great fisheries of the world, much like the Gulf of Mexico. Dead zones are the proverbial canary for the rest of our waters. There are too many Wisconsin families who can’t drink their well water due to nitrate and coliform bacteria contamination, especially in Kewaunee and Brown Counties where you can find most of Wisconsin’s industrial dairies.

Yet, public policy in Wisconsin increasingly supports, promotes and encourages industrial agricultural models designed for maximum output and profit regardless of the impacts on public health or the capacity of natural systems to sustain high loads of nutrient pollution and other toxins. Some point to investments in technology as the magic ticket to make concentrated industrial livestock production work. Here in Dane County, the troubled Waunakee manure digester is once again in the news: this time it blew up. So far the facility has spilled close to 400,000 gallons of untreated manure and the phosphorus reduction that justified the investment is no longer on target to deal with the manure that actually gets processed.

Lake Erie is Dead Again. Let’s get at the cause rather than dealing with crisis management every 40 years or so. Protect the rights of citizens to have a voice, to petition our government, and protect our water for future generations.

Kimberlee Wright

Executive Director

Midwest Environmental Advocates

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Read More:

Toxic Algae, Drinking Water, and Why Madison Won't Be Toledo - this blog post from the UW-Madison Center for Limnology features a Q&A with its director, Steve Carpenter, on why Wisconsin's water mostly comes from groundwater sources instead of lakes like in Toledo. It has great information about how algae comes in different forms - some toxic, some not - but that the U.S. has no standard for testing toxic algae and the best way to keep all algae down is to reduce phosphorus levels.

Lake Erie algal blooms similar to those found in Madison lakes - story from Cap Times writer Jessica VanEgeren connects the problems with Toledo's water source to the perpetual problems in the Madison-area Yahara chain of lakes' closed beaches. The story cites an Ohio governemental report showing that 2/3 of the phosphorus in Lake Erie comes from agricultural (non-point) sources. 

Toledo's Drinking Water Crisis - the EPA is taking public input on new rules (Waters of the United States) that would better protect the wetlands, streams and tributaries that feed our drinking water sources. Ohio has lost 90% of its wetlands to development. But corporate and industrial agricultural lobbyists are fighting this plan that could help prevent future water crises. Read more from the Natural Resources Defense Council on why the EPA's voluntary compliance plan to get polluters to reduce phosphorus in our water isn't working.

Toledo and Toxic Water: The Intersection of Climate Change and Water Quality - NRDC's Rob Moore makes the connection between Lake Erie's algae susceptibility to climate change preparedness. Like Lake Erie, the Gulf of Mexico's dead zone and hypoxia problem need to be a part of protecting our water on an increasingly warming planet.

Great Lakes Drinking Water Fouled by Toxic Algae - this post from Circle of Blue, a nonprofit, independent journalism organization, provides an in-depth look at the science and the human impact of algae pollution in Lake Erie and across the Midwest. The article also mentions hypoxia problems in Green Bay as well as how algae problems impact Wisconsin's important tourism industry in Door County.

/ tagged: government, water, rural, agriculture, wetlands, drinking water, lakes, phosphorus, public trust doctrine, mississippi river