Recent Fish Kills

By Judy Nugent - November 1, 2006
Sorry to say there have been at least 9 fish kills in SW Wisconsin this year so far. In February 6 miles of the west branch of the Sugar River were killed. Recently removed from the federal list of degraded waters, this stretch of river had been improved after $900,000 worth of restoration work. In February a large, unknown amount of liquid manure was spread on a frozen field near the town of Blue Mounds. After a rise in temperature, the manure ran down the slope into the water. The DNR still doesn't know the full extent of the damage. Over 100 dead fish have been recovered so far, but more dead fish may lie on the bottom. The DNR won't know the extent of the kill until the water temperatures rise and the fish float to the top.

A similar situation happened on the Willow last summer. An over application of manure on a 17 acre filed resulted in a fish kill that stretched roughly 11 miles. The Willow had been named as one of SW Wisconsin's top 5 trout streams, but the DNR reports an almost complete kill of trout, chubs, suckers, and scuplins.

The Pecatonica River saw 2 fish kill events, one of which involved Otter Creek. In July 2004 a 30 mile stretch was killed from a large discharge of manure into Otter Creek. Then in October a valve on a manure pit was left partially open killing a 5.6 mile stretch. Thousands of forage fish and an unknown amount of game fish were killed.

The worst kill ever seen in the area happened a few weeks ago. Two miles of prime brook trout habitat on the upper stretches of the West Fork of the Kickapoo River are dead. Also, Dave Vetrano of the DNR reports a total kill of the 54 acre, Jersey Valley Lake. "The rebuilding process will take years, and funding the DNR doesn't have," said Vetrano. The 54 acre lake was killed from liquid manure spread on frozen ground. The breakdown of the nutrients used up all of the oxygen causing the fish, snails, and even midges to die of asphyxiation. Vetrano recently reported that it will take 8-10 years for the lake to recover.

These fish kills have angered many fishermen who are calling for accountability. Farmers have their own opinions. "We have a right to make a living," said one farmer who did not want to be identified.

The DNR is trying to listen to both sides. Where valves were intentionally left open or where there was criminal intent, the DNR is referring the cases to the Department of Justice. What bothers anglers are the cases where no apparent law was broken or where the DNR refuses to step in. There is currently no law against spreading manure on frozen ground. As a result there will be no fines to off set the cost of recovery. Also there will be no enforcement of the restitution law that says even in the case of an accidental spill, the culprit is responsible for paying $26.25 per fish. When Vetrano was asked about this law he said, "we have no single landowner to hold responsible."

Farmers do have a right to make a living, but so does the couple running the restaurant in town that caters to tourists, and the young man running the bait shop. Residents have a right to expect a reasonable rise in their property value. Fish kills hurt tourism and the local economy. The stigma of a fish kill will stay in the minds of the public affecting the livelihood of locals beyond the farmers.

However, none of the solutions are cheap. Manure storage is roughly $35,000 per farm, and even the smallest dry dams that stop run-off are $8,000-$12,000 each. As for the dams already in place, a NRCS employee said, "We just don't build them for large rain and melt events. We build for 1 inch of rain in a 24 hour period. To build for larger events isn't cost effective."

Ironically, in the Jersey Valley case, landowners in the area are required to submit a nutrient management plan by 2005-2006, and one even received the conservationist of the year award from the county.

All of these fish kills have one thing in common - manure. No one is disputing this fact. So, is the DNR protecting the resource? There have been at least 9 kills so far, the worst kill in the history of the area, dangerously high E.coli counts, the only beach in Vernon County closed for the summer, possible well contamination from cracks in the bedrock, and no fines? But the DNR's hands are tied. Repeatedly their budgets have been cut, the secretary is a political appointee, and they have been asked to do more with less. It is time for the governor to re-create the position of the public intervener so that citizens can sue the DNR when they fail to protect the resource, and it is time to give the DNR the tools to protect the environment.

So while solutions are discussed inside the DATCP, DNR, Department of Justice, and the legislature, Wisconsin fishermen should expect more fish kills to make the news. I asked Vetrano if Timber Coulee was susceptible. He said, "Yeah, in fact I'm surprised it hasn't happened already." In a progressive state like Wisconsin we should be able to find a way to have healthy streams and a healthy farm industry.

Author Judy Nugent
Judy Nugent
Judy Nugent has been writing for several years. Her work can be found in Wisconsin Outdoor News, Wisconsin Outdoor Journal, Wisconsin Sportsman, Midwest Outdoors, Fly Fisherman Magazine and Snowshoe Magazine among others. She is also on the TV show OUTDOOR WISCONSIN. Judy has experience in radio with the show Great American Outdoor Trails where she does a weekly segment called Women on the Trail.