Putting the 'Clear' Back in 'Clear Water'

a coalition is working to improve the quality of the Eau Claire River – and you can help

Robin Walsh, photos by Michael Lundebrek

The Eau Claire River, upstream from downtown Eau Claire
The Eau Claire River, upstream from downtown Eau Claire.

This is a story about a city that decided to throw a party down along the river, but forgot to ask if the river was in a party mood.

If you frequent the river trails around downtown Eau Claire you may have seen the small plaque just upstream from the Barstow Street bridge that commemorates the discovery and naming of the Eau Claire River by French explorers in 1767. The 200-plus years of human activity from logging, manufacturing, construction, municipal waste, and farming have all taken their toll on the overall water quality of our once “Clear Waters.” Nasty blue-green algae blooms now occur during our hot summer months, just when people are most active along our river trails and downtown plazas.

The Eau Claire River system flows through Taylor, Clark, Chippewa, Jackson, and Eau Claire counties and ultimately joins the Chippewa River at the confluence downtown. Man-made lakes upstream include Mead, Rock Dam, Coon Fork, Lake Eau Claire, and Lake Altoona. In recent years, hundreds of thousands of dollars – mostly collected directly from riparian property owners as an additional levy to their property taxes – have been spent on the latter two lakes to improve water quality and fisheries and to remove sediment that is sent downstream during high water flows.

But much work remains to be done. Our shorelines need to be addressed to prevent runoff of fertilizers, pet waste, and other sources of phosphorous. Riverbanks need to be stabilized to prevent erosion. Farmers need to adapt to new methods for overall soil health and sustainability such as no-till planting, reducing fertilizer use, creating buffer zones next to streambeds, and managing manure.

The efforts already taken by local citizens, businesses, and governments have spurred an incredible amount of recent developments along the riverfront, starting with the RCU headquarters and Phoenix Park. Haymarket Landing, JAMF Software, Altoona’s River Prairie, the Confluence Performing Arts Center, and (just downstream along the Chippewa River) the newly announced UW-Eau Claire amphitheater and overlook will all feature riverfront paths and outdoor venues that will truly be showplaces for locals and visitors alike, and they have rightfully received much coverage from local media outlets.

There is one more group working behind the scenes that doesn’t get much attention, although its success could be key to Eau Claire eventually becoming the “destination city” it is working so hard to be. This is the Eau Claire River Watershed Coalition. The coalition was formed in 2015 when the Eau Claire County Land Conservation Department received a $50,000 grant from the Department of Natural Resources to address the nine key elements for watershed-based planning under the Environmental Protection Agency’s nonpoint source program. The coalition has been conducting meetings with local planners and conservation staff, lake property owners, farmers, and all those who have a love of the natural beauty our area is blessed with and a desire to protect what is still pristine and to restore the land and water that has been degraded. If you are interested in topics such as habitat restoration, soil health, fisheries, or farmer-led councils and would like to be notified of future coalition events or be added to the group’s mailing list, please contact Chris Straight, senior planner at the West Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, at chris@wcwrpc.org or Google “Eau Claire River Watershed Coalition.”

Maybe a hundred years from now they’ll put up another plaque at some really pretty spot along the river recognizing the efforts by this group and others that are working so hard to bring the “Clear Waters” back downtown for everyone to enjoy.

Robin Walsh lives on Lake Eau Claire with his wife, Jane, and they love to canoe and camp with their granddaughter Hazel on the upper Eau Claire River.

Press and hold the up/down arrows to scroll.