Liquid manure threatens Sugar River
Written by The Capital Times   
Wednesday, 02 March 2005 10:22
A major fish kill in the West Branch of the Sugar River here might force the river back on to a federal list of degraded waters after years of restoration by environmental groups.

At least six miles of the stream was affected by liquid manure flowing into the river from steeply sloped farm fields off Wisconsin 78 and Blue Valley Road in the town of Blue Mounds, south of Mount Horeb.

More than 100 brown trout of all sizes and ages were recovered by state Department of Natural Resources biologists and county staffers west of Wisconsin 92 during the weekend, but more dead fish are expected to be recovered, said DNR spokesman Greg Matthews.

"We recovered 20 more fish Monday," Matthews said. "Most of that manure is still on the land and has not entered the surface waters yet."

The DNR is investigating one particular farmer and a manure hauler as contributing to the source of the liquid manure entering the stream, but neither the farmer nor the hauler has been identified.

DNR and county staffers worked during the weekend to construct two earthen dams in the river to hold back the manure flow so it could be pumped out of the river.

Fisheries biologist Kurt Welke said the full extent of the manure damage to the river won't be known for some time.

"Right now, we can't quantify the damage to the aquatic community due to the cloudy water and cold water temperatures in the West Branch," Welke said.

More dead fish could have sunk to the river bottom and won't rise until they start to decompose.

Weather in March will determine how much manure could possibly enter the river, increasing the possibility for a much larger fish kill.

"If there is a gradual warm-up in temperature, there may be a chronic but lesser amount of manure discharging to the river," Welke said, "but a quick jump in temperature may spell trouble if a major slug of manure enters the river."

Spreading liquid manure is legal, but farmers risk having to pay for damages if the manure is responsible for a fish kill.

Over the past several months, the DNR has received complaints in southwestern Wisconsin about liquid manure being spread on frozen ground and eventually flowing into surface waters when temperatures warm above freezing.

Last October, local officials celebrated along the banks of the West Branch of the Sugar River because it had been removed from the Environmental Protection Agency's list of degraded waters after years of restoration and almost $1 million of improvements. The upgrades included using riprap to stabilize the stream bank, reshaping the stream bank to control erosion, installing 13,000 feet of fencing to restrict cows entering the river and putting over 1,000 fish habitat structures in the stream.

County Executive Kathleen Falk said the manure spill was farther upstream by about four miles from the stretch that was restored, but "any time you see liquid manure in the river, it's a cause for concern."

The County Board is reviewing liquid manure storage regulations. Falk said area farmers are conscious of the impact manure can have on waterways.

"Farmers have done a good job of keeping the streams clean," she said.

Matthews said this particular manure runoff is an ongoing situation and the full extent of the damages won't be known for some time.

"There's a lot of manure," he said. "All we know right now is there is a fish kill with some impact to the aquatic community, but we have a whole investigation to go.

"We did want to alert the public, however, that the stretch of water that came off the degraded list could go back on the list."

 
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