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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Lake County to Form Water Quality Board: Will It Have Teeth?

The Lake County Commission held a special meeting last night at Madison's 4-H grounds to discuss the formation of a new water quality board. About three dozen area residents attended and contributed their thoughts on what such a board should try to achieve.

Commissioner Scott Pederson led the discussion, and I must admit, he does a pretty good job of laying out the issues, inviting questions, and building on the input of audience members. He did put one audience member on the spot: after a fair amount of generally favorable responses and input, Pederson turned to Steven Kant, who opposed the formation of the water project district on Lake Madison last summer, and asked if he had any problem with this new plan.

Kant was already on the record two months ago saying he supports a county-sponsored water quality board. Kant recognizes that a county effort will be able to spread out the tax burden to everyone in the watershed (watersheds—there are three in Lake County) and solve problems beyond the lakeshores.

But Kant also laid down a clear challenge: he looked the four commissioners (Roger Hagemann was absent) in the eye and said the county lacks the guts to enforce the policies the new water quality board may offer.

Case in point: drainage. This issue caught me by surprise; I was expecting a happy discussion of grassy waterways and pollutants. But early in the conversation, John Hess brought up the issue of all the drain tile being installed to move water around the county. Evidently Game Fish and Parks and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents have been coming to the county lately to express concern about the amount of water being drained off farmland. When farmer lays tile and drains his water, the next guy downstream gets wet. You get a domino effect of folks tiling to move the extra water they receive from other folks' tiling.

A lot of that water ends up in the wetlands. Now you may think, "Oh, wetlands! The wetter the better!" But as Commission Chris Giles noted, where a foot and a half of water may be good, two foot and a half may be bad for wildlife habitat and feeding patterns. It may also be bad for roads: Farmer Bob may get an inch of water off his planting acres a few days sooner in spring, but that water may collect and wash out roads a section or three downstream, as has happened with a road in Lakeview Township.

GF&P and USF&W have gotten more vocal lately in opposing increased drainage, but evidently the Lake County Commission has not seen fit to oppose any tiling requests. If the new water quality board gets serious, it may find that it's in the county's best interest to stop moving water around and let it settle and filter where it naturally lies.

And that would mean telling certain landowners, "No, no more tile."

Drainage is just one issue, and it's not exclusively an agricultural issue. Homes and businesses building big driveways and parking areas, homeowners dropping rip-rap along the lake, rural homes building septic systems with insufficient drainage, homeowners pouring way too many chemicals on their lawns—all that contributes to water quality problems.

We have to change the way we live and work to address water quality issues. The county has people ready to work on water quality issues—the sign-up sheet drew at least a dozen volunteers for the county to choose from when it appoints this new board in January. The big question is, will the county make the tough choices to put the board's recommendations into action?

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