- Where to Go
- The Best of Milwaukee and Madison
- The Best Wisconsin Weekends
- A Perfect Week in Door County
- Wisconsin for Recreationists
- Rustic Road Tripping
- Made in Milwaukee
- Madison Weekend
- Sports: The Packers and Beyond
- Out on the Town in Milwaukee
- Say Cheese!
- Four Days in the Mad City
- A Wisconsin Family Road Trip
- Wisconsin’s Best Brews
A state that produced both John Muir and Aldo Leopold must have a fairly good track record of being “green.” If you discount the first century of statehood, during which the state—like most states at the time—pillaged the natural world full-bore, Wisconsin has in fact been ahead of its time environmentally. The state government initiated exceptionally far-sighted environmental laws beginning in the 1950s, when tourism loomed as a major industry. The state was the first to meet the 1972 Clean Water Act; it had put similar legislation on its own books a half decade earlier. Former Wisconsin governor and U.S. senator Gaylord Nelson founded Earth Day in 1970.
Superfund Sites and Dirty Water
Still, as always, things could be better. Wisconsin retains more than three dozen EPA Superfund sites (areas so contaminated that the EPA allots large amounts of money to clean them up). The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has found that about 900 miles of rivers in the state flunked environmental standards since the mid-1990s, and another 50 or so lakes were “questionable” or worse. Twenty-two percent of rivers and streams fail, one way or another, to meet the state’s clean-water goals. Fish-consumption advisories have been in effect since 2000 for well over 300 lakes and rivers. Though the figures may constitute less than 5 percent of riverways and an even lower percentage of lakes, it portends worse things to come.
Though the state has some of the strictest groundwater laws and is pointed to by the EPA as one of three exemplary states, not enough local water sources pass muster. Land use, particularly agriculture, forestry, and construction, often creates eroded soils and runoff polluted with fertilizers and toxins. But agriculture cannot hold all the blame; urban runoff potentially causes up to 50 times as much soil erosion and dumps whatever is on the street into the water (like your oil leak).
Contaminated sedimentation from decades of abuse remains a secondary problem. Pulp and paper mills discharged almost 300 million gallons of wastewater, most of it untreated, into surface water. The EPA was asked to declare 39 miles of the Fox River—the heart of papermaking—a Superfund site because 40 tons (of an original 125 tons) of toxic PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl) remained from factory waste discharge.
As a result of other pollution, the Wisconsin DNR issues almost 200 “boil water” notices annually (one Wisconsin county found half of its 376 wells to be seriously contaminated by pollutants such as atrazine and nitrates). More than 90 percent of state lakes have been affected one way or another, including sedimentation, contamination, and (the most common and difficult to handle) eutrophication—when increased nutrients in the water lead to algae blooms and nuisance weeds, which eventually kill off aquatic life (visit Madison, the city on four lakes, in July and you’ll know what I mean).
Mercury and Other Toxins
Some say toxic environmental pollutants are among the most pernicious, silent crises in health of the North Woods today. No big deal? Government statistics estimate that annually 1,200 Wisconsin children are exposed to elevated levels of mercury. The CDC in Atlanta says 1 woman in 10 in the United States already has dangerous levels of mercury in her blood.
Now, mercury isn’t a problem in Lakes Superior and Michigan; however, fish consumption advisories exist there as well because of a cousin toxin—PCBs, different but equally awful. (It can cause cancer.) Mercury warnings for U.S. waters increased more than 100 percent since 1993. Scientists announced a somewhat shocking discovery—that dioxins were the likely culprit of swooning lake trout stocks, not invasive species or overfishing.
Whether you agree or not on the dangers, here are official government statistics. In bottom feeders such as carp and Mississippi River channel catfish, the ppm contamination levels are at 0.11 and 0.09, respectively. Contrast this with predators such as bass and walleye, both with much higher levels, with the latter at a somewhat whopping 0.52 ppm. Northwestern Wisconsin, oddly enough, despite all those lush tracts of trees, has a rather high level of mercury contamination when compared to the rest of the state, mostly because of airborne contaminants.
This is in part why recommended daily intake of fish for women of childbearing years, nursing mothers, and children under 15 is one meal per week of bluegill, sunfish, yellow perch, and bullheads (among panfish), and one meal per month of walleye, northern pike, bass, channel catfish, and flathead catfish (among predators and bottom feeders). Note: Do not eat walleye longer than 20 inches, northern pike longer than 30 inches, or muskellenge.
For men and women beyond childbearing years, the former group (panfish) isn’t limited, while the latter group (predators and bottom feeders) is recommended at one meal per week. If you eat fish only during vacation or sporadically otherwise, you can double these amounts. To increase your chances of eating a healthy fish, eat smaller fish, eat panfish (sunfish, crappies, etc.) rather than predators (walleye, northern pike, etc.), and trim skin and fat.
Sprawl Mall Hell
With 90.1 people per square mile, Wisconsin ranks in the middle of American states for population density. However, two-thirds of the people dwell in the dozen southeastern counties, creating a serious land-use and urban-sprawl issue. In southeastern Wisconsin, agricultural land is being converted to urban use at a rate of 10 square miles per year. All of southern Wisconsin may be in danger—Scenic America declared three sites (Vernon County’s Kickapoo River Valley, Washington County around Erin, and Mississippi River bluffs) as some of the worst examples of rural landscape degradation; then again, we’re not as bad as Colorado (the entire state made the list).
Northern forests are being encroached upon as flight from burgeoning urban areas continues. This sprawl results in diminished air quality (from excess use of commuters’ automobiles), loss of farmland and wildlife habitat, more toxic runoff, and continued erosion.
At one point in the 1970s, fully half of Wisconsin counties failed standards for ozone, total suspended particulates, and sulfur dioxide. All have gotten better, save for ground-level ozone—the main ingredient of smog—still found in 11 southeastern counties. The problem is so severe that southeast Wisconsin was forced by federal law to begin using expensive reformulated gas in the mid-1990s. (Wisconsinites naturally blamed Chicago for the pollution!)
Once a grave crisis for northern lakes and forests, acid deposition, known as acid rain when it falls from the sky, has been slowed, largely through strict national legislation enacted in the mid-1980s. It’s still a problem, however; 90 percent of the pollutants in Lake Superior come from the air.
Give ’Em Hell
Pick an issue and Wisconsinites will passionately—but politely—be involved, pro or con. The longstanding tradition of grassroots activism in the state is alive and well, especially in environmental issues. But here’s the good part: It often ain’t your stereotype granolas versus timber cutters. In fact, in many environmental issues, hunters, fishers, and snowmobilers work for common ground with heretofore “enemies”—the tree-huggers of Madison. No coincidence that the Progressive Party of Fightin’ Bob La Follette was founded here.
In this author’s opinion, another piece of the pollution puzzle—not lethal but certainly important—needs scrutiny: Wisconsin’s lovely countryside is absolutely scarred by the visual pollution of “litter on a stick,” or billboard advertising. States and communities across the nation have awakened to the fact that not only is it disgustingly ugly, but it can also distract drivers. The state has nearly 15,000 ugly popsicles gracelessly attesting to our state’s, well, if not greed then certainly bad taste; only three states have more billboard advertising than Wisconsin.
© Thomas Huhti from Moon Wisconsin, 5th Edition