Concerns about blue-green algae pollution in Lake Menomin and the Red Cedar watershed have been growing for years.
More than 20 people associated with taking steps to study and clean up the lake and watershed gathered Thursday with U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin for a roundtable to share their experience and offer possible solutions.
“I’m so aware of how important our water resources are to the identity of state, the beauty of our state,” Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, said.
Long-time residents pointed out the changes seen in Tainter Lake and Lake Menomin over the years. Gary Buss with the Dunn County Fish and Game Association said he once took swimming lessons as a child in the lake, and now the lake isn’t safe to swim in with the growth of the algae.
“The community has gotten to the point where they’ve accepted the situation,” Dick Lamers, co-chair of the Red Cedar Watershed Conference, added.
KT Gallagher, Health Department director for Dunn County Public Health, said results from a recent community health needs assessment showed the No. 2 heath concern for Dunn County residents is a healthy environment, behind only mental health.
“We have such an amazing access to (natural) resources here, but those resources are considered a weakness by nearly half of our constituents,” Gallagher said of results from the assessment.
With issues of algae growth in the summer months, Menomonie Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Jody Hagman said attracting visitors to the city has grown difficult and the activity on the lake has dropped significantly. This has also affected local business owners who usually thrive during the summer.
Peter Gruetzmacher, owner of the Silver Dollar and Jake’s Supper Club, said there are plenty of reason tourists should want to visit Menomonie, but tourists are turned off later in the summer when the lake turns green.
“We’re an hour out of Minneapolis and summers down here are dead. Fourth of July the town is dead. Memorial Day weekend, Labor Day weekend, people leave this town to go to clean lakes,” Gruetzmacher said. “You’re an hour out of Minneapolis, we’ve got a beautiful downtown, we got Mabel Tainter theater, Red Cedar Trail, we got the rivers, but when the lake gets green and the town smells bad you don’t want to go swimming in there, you don’t want to put your boat in there, God forbid you dog falls in.”
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Many in Dunn County are doing what they can to combat the growing issues with the area’s lakes and rivers. From UW-Stout, the Tainter Menomin Lake Improvement Association, the Red Cedar Watershed Conference, the Dunn County Fish and Game Association, Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, Friends of the Red Cedar, National Resources Conservation Service and local farmers all shared what they’ve been doing to address the issue and what they felt was still needed.
UW-Stout’s LAKES REU is funded by the National Science Foundation and it brings in undergrads to study environmental sustainability as the students aim to understand causes of phosphorous pollution and solutions. The six-year program has lead to 65 student research projects on a variety of topics such as water quality and land use according to Chris Ferguson co-director of LAKES REU.
UW-Stout professor Dr. Tina Lee said a key to cleaning up the lakes is getting all landowners within the watershed to follow the best practices for land management and avoiding runoff. Lee said farmers are interested and have been using many of the practices to contain phosphorus to their own land, but recent financial issues in agricultural have impacted farmers abilities to invest in those practices.
Although not long enough to call it a trend, Dan Zerr, a natural resource educator with UW-Extension, said phosphorus levels have stabilized during the past four to five years according to numbers from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources taken below the Menomonie dam. The same can’t be said about the nitrate levels, which continue to rise. Zerr said nitrates move well between bodies of water and the groundwater, which can affect people’s private wells.
“If the nitrates in these lakes and the river are going up, you can bet they’re going up in the groundwater, too,” Zerr said.
A big concern for Liz Usborne president of the Tainter Menomin Lake Improvement Association is the lack of funding given to states to fight nonpoint source pollution. The cost of conservation has risen but the funding for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water Act has remained the same.
“Our hope is you will take the message back to D.C. that the current available resources are not (in line) with the problem or the solution it requires,” Usborne said to Baldwin.
Baldwin ended the roundtable with a brief tour on a pontoon ride around Lake Menomin to see the issue for herself.
“We’re standing in front of a lake that has had severe algal blooms for a very long time now and it has had an impact on human and pet health,” Baldwin said. “It has had an impact on tourism and recreation activity. It has driven businesses out of business because lower numbers of people coming and enjoying meals along the riverway, the watershed, the lake.
“The hopefulness out of this is that there is some folks who are determined to be a part of solution and to bring others in and to create partnerships.”