A half-century ago, legislation began to reduce dumping by heavy industry into the Great Lakes. Sewage is another prime source of point source pollution, one we are still tackling. Now nonpoint source pollution — runoff from fields, livestock operations and cities — is the most troubling.
For our 50th anniversary, we commissioned author and journalist Kari Lydersen to look at the Great Lakes and clean water issues that have shaped our region. Read the rest of the series here.
Fighting point source pollution
In 2002, the Lake Michigan Federation sued the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) regarding untreated sewage that the district was discharging into rivers and Lake Michigan during heavy rainfalls.
Sewer overflows have been a chronic type of point source pollution in the Great Lakes and tributaries across the region, resulting – among other reasons – when rain over-whelms sewer systems that combine stormwater and sanitary sewage in pipes.
Point source pollution was the primary target of the Clean Water Act of 1972 — in addition to sewage, the chemicals and waste that factories, refineries and other industry once dumped into the water with abandon, causing the Cuyahoga River to infamously catch on fire.
Today MMSD has dramatically reduced sewer overflows, thanks to ambitious work building a deep tunnel to store overflow, reducing stormwater runoff through green infrastructure, and Clean Water Act oversight by the state of Wisconsin and local advocates.
The Alliance and MMSD are now both advancing the fight for a cleaner Great Lakes. And MMSD is a model for cities around the region that still struggle with CSOs.
Nonpoint source pollution rears its head
Drops in sewage overflows are a Clean Water Act success story, though they still persist as a major issue, especially with climate change and record-shattering rainfall overwhelming old Great Lakes sewer systems.
But the most problematic type of pollution now may be nonpoint source pollution in the form of runoff from agricultural fields into rivers and then the lakes, carrying nutrients from fertilizer that feed harmful algal blooms. These blooms can make water toxic to drink and touch, and lead to low-oxygen “dead zones.”
Agricultural runoff feeds harmful algal blooms
Algal blooms re-emerged in the 1990s as a serious Great Lakes problem after a respite achieved in the 1980s thanks to bans on high-phosphate laundry detergent adopted under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1972. Founder Lee Botts led the Lake Michigan Federation in advocating strenuously for the bans, and Chicago under Mayor Richard M. Daley became the first city to institute a ban thanks to the Federation’s work.
But while such bans can address phosphorus from wastewater as a point source of pollution, there is currently no meaningful federal regulation of nonpoint source agricultural runoff.
The Clean Water Act doesn’t address it, and it’s not an easy thing to regulate since without one point of release, quantifying and proving the origin of pollution is complicated. But there are steps farmers and communities can take to drastically reduce runoff while providing other ecological and economic benefits. And regulations at the state and local level should mandate and increasingly incentivize best practices be used.
MMSD is also a leader in such efforts, working with farmers in the Milwaukee region and urban residents to reduce runoff. Among other things, the district has purchased more than 4,000 acres of undeveloped land for its Greenseams program, so that the land will remain as wetland and forest, providing buffers between farmland and waterways.
“The biggest key point is you have to look at this from a watershed perspective,” says MMSD executive director Kevin Shafer. “And we have to partner with farmers — they understand the water cycle as well as or better than anyone. They know that clean water helps them grow crops, feed cows.”
Dan Stoffel farms with his two brothers about 50 miles north of Milwaukee. Almost 30 years ago, he adopted no-till farming — meaning that he doesn’t plow under crop detritus at the end of the season but rather leaves it on the ground, which can mean much less fertilizer running off. Stoffel has also turned strips of his land into habitat for pollinators, growing beautiful native plants that block runoff from entering streams and rivers.
Stoffel says that while he likes helping the lakes and rivers, his main motivation is economic. “We’re trying to make a buck out here,” he says. “We’re finding that all these things dovetail into a profitable venture.”
Urban runoff pollutes the lakes
Urban runoff is also a damaging form of nonpoint source pollution, as water running off streets carries oil, chemicals, salt and debris into waterways and ultimately the lakes. MMSD partners with community residents and groups to help reduce runoff both directly into the rivers and into storm drains. Backed up combined sewers, along with polluting the rivers and lakes, also cause basement flooding that is devastating for many residents.
Shafer notes that older, lower-income neighborhoods tend to experience the worst flooding, so MMSD has prioritized creating partnerships and gaining residents’ trust in those communities — not always an easy task if people see the district as “big bad MMSD.”
Yvonne McCaskill is a retired Milwaukee schoolteacher and administrator who started a community group, the Century City Triangle Neighborhood Association, in North Milwaukee. Basement flooding was one of the big issues troubling residents, as in cities around the region.
So McCaskill began working with MMSD and the environmental group Clean Wisconsin to help residents install rain barrels and plant rain gardens with native plants that effectively soak up stormwater, keeping it out of sewers and the rivers. Clean Wisconsin Milwaukee Program Director and Staff Attorney Pam Ritger noted that over seven years the program has helped provide 53 rain gardens and 571 rain barrels, which are estimated to soak up 2.17 million gallons of rain a year.
“It’s wonderful to connect with communities and neighborhoods, to see how enthusiastic people are to be a part of solving the problem of polluted rivers and polluted lakes,” said Ritger, adding that there’s typically a celebration each summer for participants in the program, and many families come year after year.
McCaskill notes that partnerships between larger organizations and people in the com-munity are crucial, especially since larger policy groups may not understand the local needs and cultural context. For example, many of her neighbors are senior citizens who worried about the labor needed to install and maintain rain barrels. So she and her organization enlisted young people to install and maintain the barrels, and artists worked with locals to decorate them.
Just as reducing runoff has major economic benefits for farmers like Stoffel, working with other groups and agencies to reduce flooding and runoff in cities has to merge with efforts to increase civic participation and empower communities that have too long been marginalized.
“It’s not a one and done, we’re constantly having to respond to what’s going on in our environment,” McCaskill says. “Across the city these coalitions we’re building are really going to be important, and even more important for communities of color, because we have always been left behind. This is a great opportunity and a great time for communities of color to claim our spot.”
Sweeping change in the works for Lake Michigan’s Green Bay
Up the coast from Milwaukee in Green Bay, the stakes are high and sweeping change is in the works, thanks in part to work and collaborations fostered by the Alliance. Green Bay in Lake Michigan and the western basin of Lake Erie are arguably the parts of the Great Lakes most challenged by nutrient pollution, “shallow basins that have pretty large-scale problems” as Alliance senior policy manager Todd Brennan puts it.
In Green Bay and the Fox River that feeds it, much of the pollution emanates from manure from dairies; whereas in Lake Erie the main culprit is fertilizer running off agricultural fields into the Maumee River and its tributaries, with manure playing a significant role too.
One of the reasons tackling nonpoint source pollution is so challenging, Brennan ex-plains, is that the watersheds cut across numerous governmental jurisdictions. In the Green Bay area the Alliance has spearheaded collaborations between government, industry, farmers, and other community members including the Oneida Nation in planning and decision-making with a watershed-wide approach.
“The cities, farmers and businesses weren’t yet acting together, even though all of them were obligated to reduce pollution,” Brennan explained. “And there was a lot of opportunity and power in the different jurisdictions, cities, counties, and villages in the region coming together. Everyone had to come a deep understanding that we share the problem, and we are going to share in the solution.”
For five years the Alliance has hosted an annual farmer round table, where farmers come together for a day in a banquet hall and discuss their conservation practices and learn from each other. One of the Alliance’s partners in working with farmers is the Fox-Wolf Watershed Alliance.
Jessica Schultz, executive director of that alliance, emphasizes that rather than the “doom and gloom and finger-pointing” that often characterize discussions of nonpoint source pollution, they aim to highlight positive work and possibilities. The Fox-Wolf Watershed Alliance also helps county land conservation departments secure funds to deal with nutrient pollution.
“We need funding to help [farmers] change the way they are currently doing things, and we also need to make sure everyone who lives here takes ownership of the water,” Schultz said. “We need to provide people the support for change, and we need to build a culture where people want to continue that practice on their own.”
Brennan said it’s important to emphasize both annual actions — like tillage and cover crops — and permanent practices, like the Agricultural Runoff Treatment Systems that the Outagamie County Conservation Department instituted to treat farm field runoff somewhat like urban runoff: capturing, storing and harvesting the nutrients and sediment permanently. ““This is a game changer” Brennan said, “to make progress on our goals we need to get a chunk of reductions that we can count on and the permanent practices are the way to get that.”
Dan Diedrich is one of the Green Bay-area farmers helping to make a difference. His family has been farming there for more than a century; he runs a dairy and grows crops. Diedrich says concern for the environment has long been a family value, and he practices no-till farming as much as possible and has manure from the dairy injected into the ground so it won’t run off. He notes that purchasing equipment for such practices is costly and it can take time for the economic benefits of conservation to kick in. But he sees farmers increasingly moving in that direction.
“Clean water adds a lot to the lifestyle for the entire community,” he noted. “It means a more attractive place to live, which makes it easier to get and keep employees, which impacts every business.”
Lake Erie: a wakeup call and growing momentum
Most summers in recent times, Lake Erie’s western basin turns into a toxic pea-soup-colored broth. In 2014 the city of Toledo had to shut down its drinking water distribution systems and tell half a million people not to drink the water for three days because of toxic contamination from the algae — fueled by fertilizer runoff from farm fields.
That was a wakeup call.
“We’d spent so much time protecting our water supply from diversion in the 2000s. Then one day hundreds of thousands of people woke up and could no longer rely on the Great Lakes for their most basic need – drinking water,” said Alliance president and CEO Joel Brammeier. “There was plenty of water but no one could use it safely. That shocked the Great Lakes region.”
In June of 2015, thanks to strenuous advocacy by the Alliance and other partners, Ohio, Michigan and Ontario agreed to reduce phosphorus in Lake Erie by 40%. Last summer, at a meeting of the Conference of Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Governors and Premiers, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine recommitted to the 40% goal, along with Michigan and Ontario again. The work of the Alliance and other stakeholders was crucial to this commitment.
The momentum was driven in part by people directly affected by the Toledo crisis, like Alexis Smith, restorative justice director at the organization Junction Coalition, who went door to door to make sure senior citizens in their community were informed not to drink the contaminated water. Smith notes that historic incidents like the one in Toledo rein-force feelings that their tap water cannot be trusted.
The Alliance and its community partners have continued to keep the pressure on the Ohio government, and last year DeWine created the H2Ohio program, a multi-million-dollar fund to improve Great Lakes water quality, with a particular focus on reducing agricultural runoff. Already about 2,000 Ohio farmers are signed up to receive incentives for adopting best practices in nutrient management, and the program also involves restoring thousands of acres of wetlands to act as buffers absorbing nutrient pollution before it reaches waterways.
“We are absolutely thrilled that Governor DeWine is so invested in the health of Lake Erie and the water quality of Ohio,” said Joy Mulinex, director of the Lake Erie Commission, a governmental body that makes policy recommendations and otherwise works with the governor on protecting the lake. “It’s going to take a number of years to see the fruits of all the work being done — algal blooms will still happen for the next couple of summers. But we’re hopeful we’ll see progress.”
Brammeier notes that in Wisconsin, where there is a clear and measurable path to reducing nutrient pollution across Green Bay, the work of the Alliance is possible partly because of an ambitious regulatory framework that includes a limit on the “total maxi-mum daily load” (or TMDL) of nutrients that can be released into Green Bay, and other mandatory pollution control measures.
In Ohio, the government has committed to creating a TMDL but so far there are not meaningful enforceable limits on nutrient pollution. The Alliance and its allies want such limits, which are critical for two reasons: to hold government accountable, and to communicate to everyone what the expectations are for reducing nutrient pollution and protecting clean drinking water.
Involving the voices and leadership of those most affected
Crystal Davis, the Alliance’s Cleveland-based vice-president for policy and strategic engagement, notes that the state can only truly tackle nutrient pollution if the process includes the voices and leadership of those most affected — the millions of residents of Toledo, Cleveland and other Lake Erie cities who see their drinking water and health at risk because of nutrient pollution.
Along with the health impacts of toxic algal blooms, economic consequences of cleanup are imposed on those who can least afford them. If cities need to spend more to clean and manage water fouled by nutrient pollution and toxic algae, those costs are ultimately passed on to ratepayers. And low-income and minority communities in Ohio and across the Great Lakes region are especially vulnerable to water shut-offs and shouldering the burden of high water bills or bottled water when they can’t trust their tap. The Alliance’s work includes working with residents to understand the full impact and ripple effects of issues like nutrient pollution, and make sure policymakers are aware and take action.
“People are suffering in silence, and we don’t know a lot of these stories until people feel comfortable enough to talk about it,” Davis noted.
Davis and her colleagues help people make their voices heard in various ways. They educate and activate community members young and old on the issues, fight for water service line replacement to reduce lead in tap water, and work to support legislation on safe and affordable water services for all.
Davis hosted an event in Akron called “Water, Women & Wellness Summit,” where women from all walks of life discussed their relationship with water. And she works with community groups on the ground that also focus on issues like police misconduct, youth empowerment and fair housing, exploring the way that water rights are interconnected.
“I’m not a traditional environmentalist. I don’t like going outside unless it’s a tropical beach,” says Davis. “For me to be passionate about this, it has to be not about habitat, but about people.”
Paul Botts — son of Lake Michigan Federation founder Lee Botts, and former board member of the Alliance — works with farmers on reducing nutrient pollution in his role as executive director of the Wetlands Initiative. He knows many stakeholders are leery of regulations targeting nonpoint source pollution, and that developing programs and mandates to address such a multi-faceted and sprawling problem is a huge challenge. But he reminds people that the victories against point source pollution — like the Clean Water Act and Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement — involved balancing complicated and competing interests and bringing diverse stakeholders together.
“Farmers are not a monolith at all — there’s vast differences of opinion in row crop farming about this issue and what they’re up for doing,” Botts says. “There are generational differences, differences of place, that’s normal, that’s human beings, we have to work with it. It is complicated, it’s frustrating in some ways. But I am fundamentally optimistic.”