Troubled Water

change needed to improve the Red Cedar Watershed

Emily Kuhn, photos by Andrea Paulseth

New efforts to find solutions to phosphorus-related problems in the Red Cedar Watershed might remedy  the algae blooms that cover Tainter Lake and Lake Menomin.
 
New efforts to find solutions to phosphorus-related problems in the Red Cedar Watershed might remedy the algae blooms that cover Tainter Lake and Lake Menomin.

In the Netherlands, watersheds are considered such a vital part of life that local governments are organized around them, rather than by cities and counties. Watersheds are just as important to life here in the Valley, yet many of us aren’t conditioned to consider how our actions impact water quality. But they do – and the algae blooms that cover Tainter Lake and Lake Menomin each year are a prime example of how agricultural and urban land use practices affect the water that our industries (agriculture, tourism, and recreation) depend on.

“When we’re fertilizing our lawn, we use a combination of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. Plants really like phosphorus and, with it, will turn green and grow. Well, algae is a plant ...” – Dan Zerr, UW-Extension Natural Resource EducationBoth lakes are part of the Red Cedar Watershed, where water quality problems like the growth of blue-green algae have been documented for decades, and today are a hot-button issue in Menomonie’s mayoral race. The problems are caused by high levels of phosphorus, which runs off urban and agricultural land. Although solutions to the problem have been slow to develop, there are actions residents can take to help local bodies of water, and a March 22 conference at UW-Stout has been organized to educate the public about this issue. The first annual conference is titled “The Red Cedar: Land, Water, and People Coming Together,” and will discuss solutions to phosphorus-related problems and, hopefully, make people aware of the situation so that water quality in the basin can begin to improve.

“All of the watershed impairments are a shared problem, and responsibility for cleaning them up is also a shared problem,” stated Dan Zerr, UW-Extension Natural Resource Educator and planning committee member for the conference. “We want people to know what the Red Cedar Watershed is, and how important it is. We want to raise awaReness.”

That awareness begins with an understanding of the Red Cedar River Basin. The basin drains an almost 1,900-square mile area of West Central Wisconsin. Tainter and Menomin lakes are located at the base of the watershed, and since the river system isn’t natural (both lakes were created by damming rivers) they’re the perfect place for sediment to settle after its journey through the watershed. Although the northern parts of the basin are largely forested, agriculture is the primary land use in the rest of the basin (and the runoff from phosphorus-rich farms is part of the problem). Since phosphorus is essentially plant food, an influx of the nutrient in water that isn’t moving creates an environment in which algae will thrive. In fact, one pound of phosphorus has the potential to produce 500 pounds of algae!



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