Project Milwaukee: Emerging Threats To Wisconsin's Water

May 7, 2019

WUWM is diving into the topic of clean water, or the lack thereof, in southeastern Wisconsin for our Project Milwaukee Series: Great Lakes, Troubled Waters.

Tuesday’s live Lake Effect examines some of the main threats to our waterways. Here's an overview of those threats, in no particular order, along with links to some of our in-depth reporting for the Project Milwaukee series. Plus, you'll find some examples of what's being done to address them.

» Overall Health Of Our Water
» Solutions To Our Water Challenges

Emerging Threats

Runoff

To Val Klump, dean and professor at UW-Milwaukee's School of Freshwater Sciences, runoff is the greatest threat and one of the biggest challenges to clean water in the Great Lakes region - especially in suburban and rural areas.

(From left) Val Klump speaking with Mitch Teich and Bonnie North during the Project Milwaukee Lake Effect live show at the Cooperage in Milwaukee's Harbor District.
Credit Lauren Sigfusson

One example is Ulao Creek, as WUWM's Marti Mikkelson reports. It's a tributary of the Milwaukee River in Ozaukee County. Like many other riverways in Wisconsin, a lack of vegetation creates the opportunity for large amounts of sediments to alter the water.

The creek runs near land that’s used for agriculture and growing communities like Mequon and Thiensville. Both pose threats to the creek, according to Cheryl Nenn, manager of Milwaukee Riverkeeper.

» Pollutants Are Abundant In Waterways Surrounding Milwaukee County

“We have more and more parking lots and rooftops and paved areas, and so often when it rains you get a lot more water washing off of our streets and our roads and our rooftops, and bringing a lot of sediment and dirt and pollutants with that,” Nenn tells Mikkelson.

Nenn says sediment from Ulao Creek can ultimately end up in Lake Michigan — a major source of drinking water supply. Runoff can also find its way into private wells.

Pharmaceuticals

Chemicals we excrete also get flushed into our water supply.

“Everything that we use as humans, whether it’s in personal care products, whether it’s medicines or drugs that we take – it’s all in Lake Michigan,” Klump explains.

Klump notes it’s a testament to our analytical capability that we can see such small concentrations, but on the other hand – research does show that pharmaceuticals have an impact on the organisms in the lakes.

“It’s a complex issue, and it’s one we’re going to have to deal with … We have to invest in solving these kinds of problems," he says.

» Can Wisconsin Achieve Clean Water?

Lead

Lead pipes are an issue in Milwaukee and other older cities. More than 70,000 homes in the city are connected to lead lateral pipes. 

It's important to note that health experts believe the main culprit for lead contamination is lead paint in old homes, not water from lead pipes. Still, water from lead pipes does pose some risk.

» What Milwaukee's Lead Problem Means For Children

The heavy metal is especially dangerous to children, as WUWM Education Reporter Emily Files reports. In Milwaukee, more than 10% of kids test positive for dangerous blood lead levels.

"Children under 6 absorb lead faster than adults do. I would recommend putting a water filter on their faucet or in their home because that's a good and effective temporary solution to lead poisoning," explains Jamie Ferschinger, director of environmental health for the Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers.

(From left) Jamie Ferschinger and Dr. Heather Paradis speaking with Mitch Teich and Bonnie North.
Credit Lauren Sigfusson

Dr. Heather Paradis, medical director of Community Services for Children's Hospital in Wisconsin, says pediatricians need to remain vigilant when it comes to lead poisoning.

"We know that long-term effects from lead exposure include things like developmental issues, learning problems, and behavior issues," Paradis explains. "But oftentimes, those are, in retrospect, that we only recognize the potential contribution that an elevated lead level has had."

Not All Doom And Gloom

While we've covered some of the threats facing our water, it's not all doom and gloom. Gov. Tony Evers has declared 2019 “the year of clean drinking water” in Wisconsin. In fact, he set aside $70 million in his two-year state budget to address water quality. Though, the budget faces potential challenges with a Republican-led state Legislature.

» Tony Evers Chats About Wisconsin’s ‘Year Of Clean Water’

There's also policy and groups geared toward improving water quality. Klump says the Clean Water Act has been a huge success, dramatically improving the water quality of rivers and streams.

Federal agencies formed the Great Lakes Task Force in 2007. It charges all of the federal agencies working to protect and restore the Great Lakes to coordinate their efforts. But when it comes to water policy and enforcement, there’s still an issue of silos within federal, state, and local governments.

(From left) Molly Flanagan, vice president for Policy for the Alliance for the Great Lakes, speaking with Mitch Teich and Bonnie North.
Credit Lauren Sigfusson

Molly Flanagan is the vice president for Policy for the Alliance for the Great Lakes. While it may seem like there are too many agencies working on similar issues, she says we can’t wait for federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency to enforce good practices. All citizens need to hold agencies — federal, state, and local — accountable.

“We do that by voting. And we do that by making sure that issues are raised in public forums. We do that by calling elected officials and making sure that they know what we think about these issues and what we expect them to do to solve water problems,” says Flanagan.

(From left) Matt Howard speaking with Mitch Teich and Bonnie North.
Credit Lauren Sigfusson

People are also conducting research and creating technologies to address water issues. Matt Howard is vice president of The Water Council and director of the Alliance for Water Stewardship, North America. He says one area of his work has been focusing on large water-using companies.

“I think one of the new interesting emerging areas around water reuse and recycling is water that's fit to purpose," he says. "So, not every drop of water that comes out of the tap has to be drinkable. If you're using it for cleaning, if you're using it for landscaping, is recycling and reusing water that is basically fit for different levels of use.”