Nutrients, Climate Change and Chemical Contamination Top Water Quality Concerns at Green Bay Meeting

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Kevin Bunch
June 10, 2019
moderator elder

The IJC’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board (WQB) gathered in Green Bay, Wisconsin, on May 8-9 for its board meeting and to host a public engagement event.

The latter took place May 8, and despite pouring rain, 45 people came to hear about actions and strategies to restore the vitality of Green Bay and Lake Michigan and to express their views on water quality challenges facing their communities.

The first half of the meeting was dedicated to a panel discussion moderated by board member Jane Elder, where four presenters answered a series of questions on four major topics: the most effective strategies and lessons learned for Green Bay nutrient management, how the Green Bay region can be prepared for climate change impacts, the biggest challenges facing the Great Lakes in the next decade  and approaches for better engaging the public in protection efforts.

The panelists were Julia Noordyk, a water quality and coastal outreach specialist with the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute; Dr. Kevin Fermanich, a professor of geoscience and environmental science at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay; Michael Troge, project manager in conservation planning with the Oneida Nation; and Daniel Diederich, owner of Diederich Farm and an advocate for Green Bay watershed protection.

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Moderator Jane Elder and speakers Julia Noordyk, Kevin Fermanich, Daniel Diederich and Michael Troge at the public meeting.

It was noted that the issues of climate change and nutrients are linked. But the panelists questioned whether current nutrient management and remediation efforts are enough to sustain progress in the future, given the expected increase in frequency and intensity of rainfall events.

Part of this discussion focused on agricultural best management practices, such as using cover crops to keep nutrients from running off the field into waterways. With changes to rainfall, the question was posed whether this would be enough to do the job. Panelists also discussed other measures that could be used to adapt to climate change, including constructing artificial wetlands and investing in green infrastructure, and the related challenges to accomplishing these measures.

With regard to engaging the public in protection efforts, panelists identified the need to better connect people to the Great Lakes so that they’re more interested in taking action to protect them, beyond relying on governments to do the job. Diederich said that if people, particularly younger generations, get out to the waterfront and enjoy what it has to offer, they’ll be more likely to promote and defend conservation and cleanup efforts.

This could also involve using modern tools like phone apps to help citizens assist with scientific research. For example, if someone were to come across a rare species, they could take a photo and upload it with geographic and timing information to a scientific database. A public comment on this topic noted that waterfront access is an issue and that more public beaches are needed.

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Tahassi Hill, councilman of the Oneida Nation in Wisconsin, gives the opening prayer. Credit: IJC

During the other half of the meeting, attendees were able to raise issues they felt are important. There were a number of attendees concerned about per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance (PFAS) contamination in the Great Lakes basin (and Wisconsin in particular) and the degree of science and monitoring available for that family of chemicals. Attendees were curious about monitoring in Wisconsin, and if PFAS have contaminated farmland. The panelists noted that Wisconsin has conducted monitoring, while universities could help work with communities to learn more about specific areas. On the whole, the science isn’t there to determine farmland impacts, the panelists said.

There also were concerns about mining permits being issued in the region and the potential contamination that could get into the water supply from new operations, though it was noted that the issue of mining permits is beyond the purview of the WQB and IJC.

IJC scientist and attendee Raj Bejankiwar said the goal of the meeting was to hear directly from local communities about their issues, concerns and challenges regarding Great Lakes water quality. “This direct feedback from the public is really important for the WQB, in terms of understanding ground-level issues,” Bejankiwar said.

In addition to the public meeting, board members visited local sites to learn more about on-the-ground pollution prevention and cleanup efforts. These sites included the Lower Green Bay and Fox River Area of Concern (AOC) and a demonstration farm. The Lower Fox River AOC region has historically been contaminated by toxic, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and was dubbed a superfund site by the US Environmental Protection Agency. A remediation effort has been underway for 16 years to remove the contaminated sediments from the area. PCBs are listed as a chemical of mutual concern by the Canadian and US governments under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

At the demonstration farm, the US Department of Agriculture and US Geological Survey described various nutrient management approaches being adopted to reduce excess nutrient loss, such as use of cover crops, crop rotation and no-till farming. The board also viewed monitoring equipment being used to measure nutrient runoff in order to evaluate the effectiveness of the various conservation practices.

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USGS and USDA scientists describe activities on the demonstration farm related to control of nutrient runoff.
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Kevin Bunch

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.