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Greg Peck: Are we doing enough to control phosphorus?

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Greg Peck
August 15, 2014

As Lee Bergquist of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel explained in a story reprinted in Monday's Gazette, a particular type of algae bloom can be toxic and led to a temporary ban on drinking the water from the municipal supply in Toledo, Ohio. That water comes from Lake Erie, where blue-green algae containing a toxin called microcystin led to the Aug. 2 warning in Toledo. The ban was lifted Aug. 4 when officials deemed the water again safe—at least for now.

As Berqquist reported, toxic algae aren't exclusive to Lake Erie. He reported that problems have plagued Tainter Lake in Dunn County repeatedly in recent years. Twenty illnesses were reported on the large Petenwell Flowage—part of the Wisconsin River system—in Adams County. The algae have affected Lake Winnebago in Winnebago County and lakes Mendota and Kegonsa in Dane County.

I wondered if I was seeing another infected spot after turning off the congested Interstate onto County N near Stoughton last Sunday and passing by the pea-soup water in Viking Park.

These algae can be fatal if you let a dog swim in an infected lake. The most common symptoms for people, Bergquist reported, are rashes, stomach ailments and respiratory irritation. The state Department of Natural Resources advises that if you're standing in knee-deep water and can't see your feet, get out.

Scientists say runoff that contains phosphorus and other nutrients is the leading cause of algae blooms.

I remember that, in 2009, then-Gov. Jim Doyle signed legislation banning phosphorus from fertilizer. In 2010, Wisconsin became one of the first states to approve standards to reduce phosphorus pollution. However, Republicans controlling the Legislature rewrote that law earlier this year, Bergquist noted, after some businesses and municipal utilities complained about costs of complying with the reductions. The guest editorial from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that I reprinted in today's Gazette suggested that the revised legislation required incremental steps to reduce phosphorus and provided “communities with more opportunities to work with upstream sources to reduce their runoff.”

Phosphorus runoff from farms can pollute surface waters. However, homeowners who apply lawn fertilizer that contains phosphorus can add to the problem. I know some manufacturers have eliminated phosphorus, but you might want to check to see whether your next batch of fertilizer contains this nutrient before you buy it.

So are these algae plaguing our neck of Wisconsin? Read Saturday's Gazette for a report from Andrea Behling.

Greg Peck can be reached at (608) 755-8278 or gpeck@gazettextra.com. Or follow him on Twitter or Facebook.



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