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Can Streams and Iron Mining Coexist?


One unanswered question in the proposed iron ore mine in far northern Wisconsin is: what impact would a mine have on the region’s air and water?

We tagged along with a scientist gathering data about the terrain’s complicated hydrology.

Matt Hudson’s hatchback is crammed with monitoring gadgets and bug repellent – along with two students from Northland College. He coordinates its watershed program.

This summer, Hudson’s team set up monitoring stations on five streams in the Penokees. He pulls out a map of the proposed mine. It shows spots where Gogebic Taconite would pile rock it moves.

“The stockpile area is here and this is the topsoil area. It sort of weaves around the trout stream,” Hudson says.

We head to Bull Gus Creek. Anglers consider it one of the region’s finest trout streams. However, until now, no one has collected comprehensive data on it – such as exactly where its water comes from or how its depth or temperature vary

Kim Oldenborg calls out stream depth and flow as she moves across the stream. Elizabeth Alexson (above) pencils findings on today's log.

Hudson’s students pull on waders and begin “reading” the creek.

Kim Oldenborg stands in the stream – holding a long probe. It’s attached to what’s called a “Flowtracker” Its screen displays water depth and flow. Oldenborg calls out the results as she makes her way step by step – reading by reading – following a line she stretched across the stream.

Matt Hudson says these weekly measurements are backed up by a device “permanently” installed at the stream’s bottom called a “logger.” It measures water level every 15 minutes every hour of the day.

Hudson estimates a hundred miles of streams weave through this piece of the Penokees.

“There’s wetlands all over the place that are pretty clearly feeding some of these streams,” Hudson says.

Yet, scientists don’t yet understand how they interact or even how the hotly-debated, densely-forested crest that would be mined fits into the hydrology equation.

“How does that affect surface and groundwater interactions. It could be like a block, basically, that only water seeps through the cracks to get through it .It certainly is having affects on how the water flows around here.

Now that iron extraction could possibly disrupt the system, teams are scrambling to collect data and estimate the potential impact. The company must do the same. All plan to submit their results to the DNR.

Matt Hudson says questions seem to outnumber answers.

“This is a really sensitive area that we don’t understand a whole lot about –It’s going to be challenging to design a mine around here that will have a minimal impact on the environment,” Hudson says.

Lawmakers who redesigned Wisconsin’s mining law insist the changes will make the permitting process more efficient, but honor the environment and science.

This creek is not part of the Northland College monitoring program. Matt Hudson discovered this uncharted stream in the Penokees. Early monitoring of its temperature, along with fish and macro invertebrate surveys indicate it could be a Class 1 trout stream.

Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.
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