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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Water Expert's Advice: Drink Your Toilet Water

Well, OK, maybe not exactly. But Robert Glennon's recent appearance on "The Daily Show" to promote his newest book Unquenchable adds a little levity to the issue of the growing crisis of freshwater availability in the US and worldwide.

Sometimes, humor is the best vehicle for a serious message. And sometimes, I can't resist a post with "drink your toilet water" in the heading.


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posted by the River Rat

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Death of a River

There are times when, despite being a loquacious River Rat, the right words for a certain event are only found amongst select other individuals and not from behind these whiskers. So it is with the recent tragedy on the Rock River in Illinois (previously reported here). So, I've enlisted the pen and mind of Lindsay Wood Davis, long time Rock River lover and dear friend of the River Alliance of Wisconsin, to capture the scope of the tragedy when, as has happened to a 100 mile stretch of the Rock, a river dies...or, is killed, which is more appropriate in this case (photos courtesy of Sauk Valley Newspapers):

"Hello darkness, my old friend I've come to talk with you again Because a vision softly creeping Left its seeds while I was sleeping And the vision that was planted in my brain Still remains Within the sound of silence"

When Paul Simon wrote those famous words back in the winter of '64, the Rock River in Northern Illinois was a muddy old river, filled with organic and inorganic effluent, from heavy metals to farm field runoff to residential, industrial and commercial sewage piped straight in. There was certainly some wildlife and a few fish, but it was far from a healthy place for "man or beast." But it was the river we had, the only one we knew.

Like the storied summer of Bryan Adam's anthem, "Back in the Summer of '69," I started paddling the Rock River. That year, a group of friends paddled and floated down the Rock River from Oregon, Illinois to Grand Detour, about 12 miles. Putting in at sundown of a Friday evening and getting in Saturday at sunup, the way was lit the entire night by a moon darned close to full and bright white. That nighttime paddle on the Friday of the full moon of July came to be known simply as, "The River Trip", an all night odyssey of friends and fun. The cast of characters paddling expanded and contracted over the years, but the core group remained. The River Trip has been held every year since.

This year a dozen folks canoed down the Rock, marking the 40th anniversary of our nighttime adventure. Age has taught us the wisdom of leaving at 6 instead of 10; now we arrive in time to help close the local tavern instead of waiting for breakfast to be ready. But what has taken place in each year since that first hasn't changed. Each year the river became cleaner, clearer and a whole lot better for "man and beast." Every year we experienced new delights: One or two Great Blue herons became a rookery with dozens of nests; Little Green herons and Night herons joined their bigger brethren. We saw eagles! Bald Eagles on the Rock! You can't imagine our delight. Or the spine tingling moment when we first spied an otter-slide on "our river." Year after year, the Rock River healed, pulling away the curtain and showing again what the Sac and Fox had seen, the river that Blackhawk didn't want to abandon; a great meandering beauty of a muddy old river, abundant with the feel and the sign and the sound of a place teeming with wonder. Every year, every single year, the river got better. Until this year.

The Rock is not a little stream; it is a good sized river with sections easily a quarter of a mile across. Where we paddle is often referred to (going back at least to the French trappers and perhaps to the Native peoples) as "the land of a 1000 islands." It has been used as the site of the American Canoe Association National Championships, and big money fishing tournaments, such as the Bass Masters and Cabella's Catfish Challenge. While Bass and Walleye have made spectacular comebacks, the river has always been most noted for huge flat-head catfish. It is said that Rock River Catfish was served at the White House by President Grant and fished for by future President Reagan. And all these fish shared the river with the buffalo carp, sheepshead and other "rough fish" typical of slow-moving, Midwest rivers. Until this year.

Our put-in, just below the Oregon dam, has for some years been a sort of Izaak Walton version of the United Nations. The people who fish that hole represent every age, race, color, creed and nationality. Little old grandmas, big tattooed bikers, Mexican kids, hordes of Hmong, toothless, tobacco-stained old men, couples paying way more attention to each other's charms than to their bobbers. There are people who fish with cane poles and carbon-fiber Ugly Sticks, stinky cheese bait or Finnish lures, the latest monofilament or thread stolen from Mom's sewing basket. They're all there, standing on that riverbank or up to their ankles, knees, waist or armpits, trying to land that big walleye or catfish, maybe even a spoonbill. Or anything. Or nothing at all. Except this year.

Each of us who paddle, or fish or float or gaze, or write or snooze or wonder or cuddle along a river has a "home river, " that stretch of water that means something deeper to us that anyplace else. Its probably obvious to you that this stretch of the Rock River is very much my "home river." While it has the familiarity of hundreds of trips, it is the changes that I see each year that really make it special to me. Until this year.

A terrible thing happened this year to my home river, the Rock River. Something so terrible that tears run down my face as I write this. In late June a train carrying ethanol hydroplaned off the tracks near Cherry Valley, just east of Rockford. Among its load were a dozen and a half tanker cars filled with ethanol. Some of these cars derailed and caught fire; the fire was fought (valiantly, according to press reports) using fire-retardant foam. Eventually, all that ethanol and all that foam ran into a creek (swollen from the same storms that derailed the train,) ran into the Kishwaukee River and then into the Rock River. What happened next is very clear. Why it happened is not.

Beginning somewhere below the Oregon Dam and above Grand Detour, essentially everything in the river was killed. Though initial reports referred to it as a "fish kill," it was WAY more than that; the river was denuded of turtles, frogs, snakes, whatever was in it at the time. This kill (and what was already dead) moved downstream past Dixon, Lake Sinnissippi, Sterling/Rock Falls and down to Como, Prophetstown and Erie. The deaths may have continued almost to the Mississippi. It was a near total devastation of almost 100 miles of the Rock River. This Canadian National freight train was our own Exxon Valdez, wiping out not only wildlife but endangering a way of life. The Rock River went from proof of the efficacy of the Clean Water Act and the efforts of thousands of people over decades of work, to being a dead zone.

As my paddling partner and I headed down the Rock last Friday night, we reached a favorite stretch a few miles north of Grand Detour. It is a spot we both know particularly well. In the midnight silence she asked, "Hey, how come it is so quiet? There's nothing! No frogs peeping or croaking, no carp feeding, no muskrats splashing. Just nothing." And she was right. The sound of that silence was both deafening and painful.

It will be years until the Rock River can recover. A real estimate is probably impossible; how many 100 mile stretches of a river, ANY river, has ever been comprehensively killed off in a matter of hours? Whatever it was that wiped out the life of the river appears to be gone; little fish, probably those who had been up the creeks feeding into the Rock, are already being caught by anglers willing to throw their lines in, even before the cause of the kill has been determined. Over time those little fish will grow to be big fish. But it will be years and years.

As of yet, there's no real outrage from the State of Illinois, no real clarion call from the politicians, no real editorial anger, no real wailing from the local chambers of commerce; there is only this deep sadness among those who know and love the river.

Over 40 years of watching the Rock River come back, I've been one of those afforded a vision of what a great place it has become and can and will be in the future. The Rock led me to involvement in the politics of rivers and the joy of paddling dozens and scores and maybe hundreds of rivers more. I'll return next year to night-time on the Rock River...and say, "Hello Darkness, my old friend, I've come to talk with you again." I hope the message I hear from my old friend will be happier than the sound of silence I heard this year. They killed an entire river, my river. Think about that: An entire river. It brings tears to my eyes.

"And the vision that was planted in my brain Still remains Within the sound of silence"

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Rat Hereby Names Thee Isherwood Creek

The River Rat's little video clip of an obscure little stream in Portage County could be seen as footage of its death throes -- or of its rebirth.

It's actually called the Isherwood Lateral, and declared long ago more useful as a drainage ditch than a real stream. The potato farmers who own a stretch of it, Lynn and Justin Isherwood (that's them in the picture), want to bring it back as a stream, and they're battling the local drainage district commission to do so.

The bucolic scene of the creek in this video (make sure you turn up your volume to hear real tweets of birds) may be the last you'll see of Isherwood Lateral like this --for now. The bulldozer and backhoe arrived a few days after Rat shot this. You can see the stream wanting to re-create itself here. That's gone now.

But hope is nigh! The drainage district boys with their machines are done, and the Isherwoods, working with River Alliance and Trout Unlimited, will restore the ditch to, if not a creek, "creek-like functions."

So, we say goodbye to the Isherwood Lateral and re-christen this homely stream Isherwood Creek. Rat doubts they'll be updating the stream maps any time soon, but it's good to be optimistic.

Crystal Geyser Eyeing Our Water -- in Bottles

Shades of Perrier!

Another water bottling outfit is back in central Wisconsin, checking out possibilities for a water bottling plant that could extract over 300,000 gallons of groundwater per day, if all goes their way. The proposed site is just a few miles away from the epicenter of the bottled water controversy early this decade, when local citizens and conservation groups sent Perrier (Nestle) packing.

River Rat was among several water rats at a meeting called by Crystal Geyser on July 21 to "dialogue" with environmental groups.

It was hard to even get past the introductions without arousing this Rat's suspicions. Despite their claim they're a "family-owned and operated company," it took some prying to find out they're actually half owned (44%) by a Japanese pharmaceutical company, Otsuka Pharmaceuticals. Rat doesn't know if there's any issues with Otsuka (yet), but it's just the wrong foot to start on when a company trying to "dialogue" with you evades questions about who owns them.

Then there's the bottling proposal itself, couched in the usual "We'll be careful!" and "Think of the jobs we create!" There are a lot of unanswered questions about what effect removing that much water will have on the area's surface waters, as groundwater and surface water there are virtually one and the same. They'll do the usual test pumping, hydro-geology studies, etc. That work will be done by a Wisconsin consulting firm, Ruekert-Mielke, last known for its laughable map-making for the City of New Berlin's application to Wisconsin DNR to divert Lake Michigan water.

Much more to come on this proposal, Rat is sorry to say.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Robbing Peter to Pay Paul? Water Woes in the Little Plover River

We’ve been hearing about how the Little Plover river, a class 1 trout stream in Portage County, has been drying up or close to it each summer as excessive groundwater pumping has been literally draining the lifeblood out of this little system. Even more powerful have been the images of a dried up creekbed with little dried up fish carcasses strewn across it where once was a flowing stream teeming with trout.

Well the river’s about to run dry again. In the absence of a long-term plan to manage groundwater withdrawal in the Little Plover River basin, DNR is proposing to pour some water into the streambed to avoid having it dry up completely. The water will come from – can you see this coming? – groundwater pumping. Granted, they are quick to reassure that this is only temporary, until a more permanent solution to the problem is drafted. But still, it feels a little like robbing Peter to pay Paul and in the end, there are still no winners. What do you think: is this is a panacea or just a PR placebo? For more on this issue, stay tuned to the River Alliance’s next issue of Wisconsin Rivers newsletter, due out in August.

posted by the River Rat

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Bold Visions and Muddy Thoughts on WI Dams: The Afternoon Edition

This morning, I posted about some pretty big plans for sturgeon passage around hydro dams on the Menominee River. The afternoon edition brings another exciting announcement that NOAA just awarded $4.4 million for re-establishing fish passage along 158 miles of Milwaukee River and tributaries. The ambitious project will include:
  • Removal of the Lime Kiln Dam in the Village of Grafton;
  • Fish passage construction at the Bridge Street Dam in the Village of Grafton;
  • Fish passage construction at the Mequon-Thiensville Dam;
  • Reconstruction of stream crossings in biologically significant tributaries that are blocking fish migration as well as removal of smaller migration impediments such as debris and invasive plants.
The grant was submitted by Ozaukee County in partnership with the City of Mequon and Villages of Grafton and Thiensville and the DNR. Culverts are under the jurisdiction of Ozaukee County, the City of Mequon, the Towns of Cedarburg, Fredonia, Grafton, and Saukville, and the Villages of Fredonia, Grafton, Saukville, and Thiensville.

The end result of this impressive project will be to reconnect over 35 miles of Milwaukee River, 11 miles of the north branch of the Milwaukee River, 112 miles of quality tributaries and more than 14,000 acres of wetlands. Only one small but big impediment stands between this renewed system and the mighty Lake Michigan: Estabrook Dam, whose fate is currently being pondered by Milwaukee County.

Such big and bold thinking about dams is typical of Wisconsin. And it also makes a recent budget veto by the Governor all the more befuddling. The Legislature presented a budget amendment which would reinstate the DNR's authority to recommend fish passage at dams where important fish species are impacted. This amendment also removed the requirement that taxpayers of Wisconsin pony up part of the cost of fish passage on private dams that harmed rivers. Governor Doyle vetoed this amendment, despite support of the Legislature and the DNR. There isn't some long history of cost-sharing fish passage here: this requirement was snuck into the budget by a vindictive legislator eight years ago and its removal would have presented a significant cost-savings to our heavily-in-debt state. Fish passage is an essential piece of the picture at dams on our most biologically productive rivers. What a shame to have squandered an opportunity to right this wrong.

SturgeonVision...and You Don't Need Those Goofy Cellophane Glasses

Okay, it will never get tens of thousands of hits on YouTube, but we think the video of big lake sturgeon swimming around in front of an underwater camera in the Menominee River is a good story to tell.

Here’s the story; the video link is below. For years, the River Alliance has joined the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, the natural resources agencies of Michigan and Wisconsin, and WE Energies in figuring out how to enable the mystical and prehistoric lake sturgeon to get around the many dams on the Menominee River. (This is the border river between Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.)

This is no simple task, even though the devices that may end up transporting the fish up and over the dam – essentially, elevators and water slides – are commonplace. For example, how’s a sturgeon supposed to find the elevator to get over a dam?

The only way to find out is put a box along the side of a dam and see if the fish find their way into it. That’s what you’ll see in the video clip – big sturgeon attracted to a box mounted on the side of the dam (the so-called fishway entrance). The study is designed to figure out whether sturgeon can be drawn to a place at a dam site where they can be lifted over the dam, or swim themselves to new streams expressly built to allow them to swim around them dam.

River Alliance’s hydro consultant Jim Fossum says, “This study was a very significant step. We now have proof beyond a doubt that sturgeon will enter the test device, and this information will help in the next phase – designing the actual structures for fish passage.”

Other fish passage projects the River Alliance is negotiating are at the two hydro dams near the mouth of the Menominee River, at Marinette, operated by North American Hydro; and the Alliant Energy-owned Prairie du Sac dam on the Wisconsin River.