Add to Technorati Favorites

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Lies. Dam Lies.

A bill that passed the Wisconsin Senate this week and is on track to be voted on by the Assembly will allow hydropower from megadams in Canada to count toward utilities’ renewable energy requirements. This proposed language would alter state law as a sweetheart deal for one utility: Wisconsin Public Service (WPS), of Green Bay.

WPS will purchase more than 500MW of energy from Manitoba Hydro, a deal worth over $2 billion. WPS wants this power to count as their renewable energy requirement but is hindered by one small roadblock: current law explicitly exclude Manitoba megadams from being considered renewable. Current language acknowledges the cultural and environmental devastation these dams brought to the Churchill River system and the Northern Cree tribes that subsisted on it.

But these are not existing dams sitting around waiting for a customer. Exports of power to Wisconsin and Minnesota has been the justification to build three brand new megadams. The proposed dam construction will continue to create massive reservoirs, flood forests, release methane into the atmosphere and increase mercury into the water, fish and animals. Getting the power from Canada to Wisconsin will also require more high powered transmission lines (of the controversial Arrowhead-Weston type) a detail that has been conveniently omitted from the PR for cheap energy put out by WPS and the sponsors of this bill in the Wisconsin Legislature.

This bill is bad news for rivers and for the renewable energy industry in Wisconsin. This proposed change first appeared as part of last year’s package of clean energy initiatives, but that version was accompanied by an increase in the percent renewable energy to be required of utilities. (River Alliance was on record as opposing it even last year.)

This time around, the higher renewable energy standards have been droppd. Without them, the cheap Canadian hydropower will flood Wisconsin within the next decade and completely remove any incentive to develop in-state renewable energy from wind, solar and other sources. (Oh, that’s right – they’re making wind energy harder to produce too.)

Call it cheap. Call it politically expedient. Just don’t call this renewable energy. That would be a dam lie.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Grass Carp Found in Lower Wisconsin River Confirmed Sterile

You may remember that on April 27th the Wisconsin DNR stumbled upon two large grass carp just downstream of the Prairie du Sac dam. This was a significant finding because it was the first time an Asian Carp had been found in the Wisconsin River. See previous blog on April 29th for more background.

The DNR biologists who found the carp sent a sliver of its head including a piece of its eye to a USGS lab in Louisiana to determine if this fish had been capable of breeding in our waters. They also sent a few bones to another USGS lab in Missouri to determine how old the fish was (we are still waiting for the results from the latter but WDNR biologists believe it to be at least 10 years old).

The results from Louisiana are in and are quite encouraging – the fish is triploid. A triploid fish is one that is modified to have an extra set of chromosomes that prevents the fish from forming glands necessary to reproduce. Triploid carp are still legally released in many states for use in aquatic plant management. Today, thanks to NR 40, it is ILLEGAL to release even triploid carp.

While we can all sigh in relief as we dodged this biological bullet, this remains to be a harsh reminder that Asian Carp are quite capable of invading Wisconsin through our western border, the Mississippi River. This is believed to be the way in which this pair of Grass Carp found their way to Wisconsin.

Join the River Alliance as we partner with Friends of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway, Sauk River PAL and many more to prevent the spread of invasives within the basin! »

Monday, May 16, 2011

Lawmakers and Mining Companies Hand Us A Gift

Granted, you normally wouldn't dub draft legislation that strips, guts, gouges, unhinges, declaws and strip-mines (you might say)Wisconsin mining laws and regulations a gift.

But you have to congratulate the mining companies poking around northern Wisconsin for iron ore, and the two feckless tools they found in the Wisconsin legislature, to make it so much easier to rally public support against a proposed iron mine in Wisconsin.

The mining companies told two legislators (Honadel and Zipperer) just what they wanted, so the two lawmakers made the mining companies' every wish in come true.

There's strong local support in Onieda County for the jobs the mine may bring, and if you're living in Grantsburg or Union Grove or somewhere -- and the mine isn't in your back yard -- you might think: "Well, they need jobs up there, and it can't be that bad, could it?"

And maybe that's how people might have seen it -- a good thing at best, a minor environmental disruption at worst. Now, thanks to this draft bill, even someone in favor of the mine might wonder what we're getting when the bill:

  • would allow the Dept. of Natural Resources less time to review a mining proposal than it takes your mechanic to change out your blown transmission;

  • says really bad information about the mine -- say, a circle on a piece of paper saying, "Mine Goes Right Here" -- is not grounds for DNR to deny the mine;

  • claims wetlands are expressly made sacrifice areas for mining tailings, and can be mitigated (replaced, which doesn't really work for wetlands, but never mind) anyhere in the state;

  • blows off (meaning does not require!) analysis of environmental or health hazards the mine could cause;
  • blows up any process for public input into how the mine will be regulated.

And on and on.

Despite how hideous and egregious this bill is, it is turning out to be handy ammunition for mining opponents. It's obvious the mining companies and the Walker administration want to railroad this mine through. Rat doubts most Wisconsinites think we are this desperate for iron mining that we are willing to throw out any vestige, any pretense, of review or process for this project. And other legislators in the area, who may have been ambivalent or felt compelled to support the mine because of the jobs prospect, can now easily oppose the legislation because it
makes mincemeat of any reasonable review process of the mine, including public scrutiny.

You'd think they'd learn from the last mining project that got blown up by smart and well organized opposition. But Crandon mine cheerleaders made several blunders along the way that helped catalyze public opinion against it.

It's hard to imagine we could be so lucky this time, but it appears we're up against hubris and arrogance once again. But their first cousins are stupidity and blindness, and this bill is a first sign of that.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The "Man"itowish River - No rest for weary wildlife

Now being just a river rat, I am not a hydrologist by any stretch of the imagination. However, it doesn’t take a scientist to know something is fishy here on the Manitowish River in Iron County. It’s a ghost town here with no sturgeon, breeding duck pairs, or even river rats to be found.

Back in the day the Manitowish River was the place to be in the spring when it flooded its banks and created over 1600 acres of wetlands or as I like to call them – home. These wetlands would persist through spring and slowly dry out through August or September.

Today it is a different story. It turns out that Excel Energy and the landowners on Rest Lake, a dammed lake upstream in Vilas County, have decided that it was a good idea to draw down the lake in the fall to protect their piers from being damaged by the ice. I guess it is out of the question that they remove their docks from the water come winter like the rest of northern Wisconsin. Therefore, in the spring as soon as the ice is 75% off the lake, they shut down the flow of the river by cranking the dam damn near closed to refill the lake as quickly as possible during the spring runoff event, precisely the time us wildlife are trying to make whoopee downstream in the wetland. I spoke to a few of my friends to ask them how this impacted their mojo.

The word on the stream is that the fish get stranded in small pools of water where they are busy spawning when the water is suddenly shut off. Today there are less than a dozen female sturgeon around and they don’t feel much like spawning these days. Our feathered friends from shoreland birds to waterfowl are here one day and gone the next, forced to find another wetland to call home.

As for us river rats, it’s a dire situation in the fall. We like to build our homes in the wetland in preparation for winter when unbeknownst to us the folks upstream are drawing down Rest Lake sending an unnatural pulse of water through the system. We build our homes in what we think is a wetland protected from the elements. When they are done drawing down the lake and close the dam, we come to find out that our homes are left high and dry. In a Wisconsin winter that means frozen…. frozen dead.

This battle has been raging for a while now. The Wisconsin DNR and the USGS is gathering data this year in hopes of being able to mandate Excel to be a bit more considerate (of us wildlife) in its management of the dam. Come on WDNR and USGS, lend us a hand here already.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Fun in Fond du Lac County: A Tale of Two Rivers

Flow along with river rat Laura DeGolier, of Fond du Lac, as she describes a recent run down the obscure West Branch of the Fond du Lac River, with fellow rats Lindsay Wood Davis, Amanda Davis, and Denny Caneff.

Quiet, secluded, available only by water, sliding a kayak or canoe into the West Branch of the Fond du Lac River from the dike road in the Eldorado Marsh, a few miles west of the city of Fond du Lac, is a real pleasure. The current has carved a path through the cattails and allows easy passage through this watery space inhabited only by wildlife.

When gliding through the marsh birds, ducks, herons and coots are easily disturbed by rare human intruders. Sandhill cranes leave their feeding for a quick flight around before settling down again. Blue winged teal and mallards respond with noisy takeoffs as the intruders move along the river.

Passing under the abandoned railway that marks the south boundary of the Eldorado Marsh is the first sign of civilization (other than distant traffic noise). It is another ½ mile before you cruise under the Hwy. 23 bridge, and the tale of the second river begins.

The stream narrows here, forcing the water to crowd into a smaller area and the speed of flowing water picks up. By the time the canoes and kayaks reach Town Line Road all eyes are on the river and there is less time to gawk at the wildlife along the stream bank.

Ahead the river is tumbling downhill – so surprising for this flat landscape. You can see the downhill tilt of the racing water as it flows over hidden boulders creating small whitecaps on the water’s surface. All hands are on the paddles and ready to pull harder on this side or rudder on that side to overcome the pull of the current as it crashes into the bank and then moves back into midstream.

Hawks fly overhead; an owl is moved from its resting place, and warblers hurry to keep up with the speeding canoes and kayaks. And the water keeps tumbling downhill around bends in the river, past farm houses and new developments high on the hill above the river. The ride down the river is quite like sliding down a bannister. Scenes of the wooded lands with standing water, open farm fields and marshy areas catching the overflow flash past as the captains of their vessels keep focused on the speeding river ahead.

The water is cold on this April day and no one has a desire to take a bath in the churning, rushing flow. The pace is exhilarating; there can be few thoughts of anything other than navigating the swirling water ahead.

The pace stays very fast until the Forest Ave. bridge, where it slows slightly. Still, at this time of the year with the water level high, the pace is lively on into Fond du Lac where the West Branch eventually meets with the East Branch and its heavy burden of eroded soils, and then the merged branches wind another couple of miles through the city to the Lake.

The West Branch tells two tales -- quiet and secluded at its origin, then falling with the natural drop of the land from the high point in its watershed to the level of the city.

Grab a kayak and a friend or two, especially on a spring day, to explore this obscure and quiet river, which becomes a thrilling raceway to Lake Winnebago – a riverine gem to experience and treasure.