Op Ed

Why State’s Lakes Are in Decline

Long list of Walker policy changes has led to polluted streams and lakes.

By - Jul 7th, 2018 07:26 pm
Lake Waubesa. Photo courtesy of Spencer Black.

Lake Waubesa. Photo courtesy of Spencer Black.

A couple days ago I hopped on my paddle board to spend a little time exploring Lake Waubesa. In many ways it was a perfect summer day in the Badger state – close to 80 degrees, sunny with blue skies, and a breeze just brisk enough to be refreshing and keep most of the bugs away. Almost perfect but not quite.

It’s always a joy to be out on the water in Wisconsin where we are blessed with so many beautiful lakes and streams. What should have been one of those idyllic summer mornings was marred by the water pollution that has become all too common around the state these days. Much of the lake was covered with a thick scum of blue-green algae and the odor emanating from that slimy mess was anything but pleasant. But it’s not just a stinky eyesore – the algae bloom threatens both aquatic life and human health. Decaying algae lowers oxygen levels and leads to fish kills. Because it emits toxins, blue green algae can cause illnesses, including respiratory failure, organ damage, gastroenteritis and rashes.

Lakes are essential to our quality of life, to our $12 billion a year tourism industry and to property values. Yet, on all too many of our lakes, enjoyment is severely limited by excessive growth of algae and weeds fueled by phosphorus pollution.

While water pollution is a long standing issue in Wisconsin waterways, we are learning more about the extent of the problem. More than 800 waterways have been added to the list of lakes and streams that exceed phosphorus and other pollutant limits since Scott Walker became Governor. Given the importance of clean water to our state, you would think that state government would be working diligently to address this situation. Just the opposite has been happening. Instead of working to improve lake water quality, Walker, along his political appointees and legislative allies, have enacted new rules and laws that threaten to degrade water quality even more.

A recent audit found that the Walker administration failed to follow enforcement policies against polluters more than 94 percent of the time. Under Walker, referrals for legal action against polluters have been cut in half. Enforcement is especially poor for megafarms that produce large volumes of manure.

Walker has weakened regulations that control shoreline development and dredging, both of which lead to increased lake contamination. Walker is allowing the destruction of more wetlands, which are essential to water quality because they absorb pollutants before they reach the lakes. The Stewardship Fund, which protects land in watersheds crucial to water quality, has been substantially decreased. Walker has underfunded county soil and water conservation departments which help farmers improve agricultural practices to reduce pollution runoff. He decimated the DNR science bureau which has provided essential research on pollution control.

Faced with the failure of state government under Walker to adequately address the deteriorating condition of lakes, many local governments and lake associations have stepped up to improve water quality. A prime example is Dane County where County Executive Joe Parisi has launched an ambitious effort to clean up the lakes, including Lake Waubesa. However, Walker has been kneecapping these local efforts. Walker prohibited counties from enacting necessary controls on inappropriate shoreland development even as state standards have been weakened, banned local governments from regulating polluting megafarms, and severely limited the ability of local governments to control storm water runoff.

Summer in Wisconsin should mean getting out on a lake that’s not befouled by pollution. We need a Governor who will help, not hinder, efforts to keep our waters clean and our summers enjoyable.

This column was first published by Madison’s Cap Times

Spencer Black represented the 77th Assembly District for 26 years and was chair of the Natural Resources Committee. He currently serves as the vice president of the national Sierra Club and is an adjunct professor of urban and regional planning at UW-Madison

Categories: Environment, Op-Ed, Politics

5 thoughts on “Op Ed: Why State’s Lakes Are in Decline”

  1. Bill Sell says:

    For the present administration there is only one resource: using our tax revenue for incentives to corporations. Never mind the resources we can see, touch, taste, smell: drinking water, sustainable farming, shoreland turf that filters unclean water. Today everything is a buck or it is nothing.

  2. Virginia Small says:

    These threats to water quality–and even the survival of individual lakes–are real and far-reaching. So are the economic consequences in terms of tourism, property values, etc.

    A group of 200 concerned property owners in Central Wisconsin allied themselves a decade ago to work to protect Pleasant Lake in Waushara County. They recently purchased a nearby farm with an un-activated high-capacity well permit–to help prevent the lake from being drained and polluted.


    But defensive actions by citizens cannot mitigate the massive damage being done and the dismantling of the DNR.

    The JS reported yesterday that Walker wants to remove DNR from any role in regulating these farms and their polluting impacts, instead letting the fox guard the hen house–by giving regulatory power to the Dept. of Agriculture.


  3. Dan Hulbert says:

    The smiling “good guy” we see on paid ads is simply a manufactured PR persona.I hope the electorate remembers what is really going on come election time.

  4. daniel golden says:

    Unfortunately corruption pays. Walker has amassed 30 million dollars in his war chest, much of it from the corporate polluters. All of the wonderful lakes and streams we bragged about in this state have fallen victim to unbridled corporate greed. Unfortunately, the right wing has been playing a long game, and appear to have almost total domination of our government in hand. It appears that the worst of us will be governing the rest of us for some time to come. Citizens United was to representative democracy as playing taps is for a dead soldier; the beginning of the end.

  5. MKE Kid says:

    Virginia: Thanks for links. Interesting and informative!

    What’s also interesting is reading the JSO commentor’s fb links. There’s one who is in total support of Walker and ilk. One posting shows a photo of a crowd waving small US flags. The caption to this photo is “IMMIGRANTS.” The next photo shows a mostly brown and black crowd that is shouting with one woman in front flipping the bird. The caption under that photo is “GIMMEGRANTS.” Nowhere is there a link or citation identifying the angry crowd as “ILLEGALS,” as this fb poster likes to use frequently. What follows is his fb comment:

    “God bless LEGAL US immigrants and grant them success in finding the American Dream with good jobs to earn a decent home, vehicles and a happy life.
    May ILLEGALs be caught, detained and deported without delay.
    May ILLEGALs be denied the ability to collect welfare and bleed the taxpayer for $billions.
    May US Patriot, US Exceptionalism Lover, Christian, Successful Private Sector Worker/Producer Independent Business Man Best POTUS SUPER HERO President Trump prevail over US worker/producer taxpayer enemy liberal communist/socialist demoRATs, JEALOUS CINO’s (Conservative In Name Only) or Never Trumper’s to BUILD the WALL.
    Thank you God for Best POTUS Trump “Make[ing] America Great Again”

    Nuff said. His other comments are as equally angry and loaded with labels and name calling.


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