When I finished my PhD Dissertation a few years ago in July I took my first job as an Assistant Professor at a new interdisciplinary state university with an environmental focus. In particular, I looked forward to a brief respite from research and writing. Teaching would be a pleasure and a contrast from the intense concentration of completing graduate studies and writing a Dissertation. Upon arrival on campus in August I was contacted by another new Assistant Professor who wanted me to join a research team to investigate a problem on a Wisconsin lake in Marinette County near the Michigan border. I attempted to resist saying I wanted to settle into my new faculty position. However, my new colleague was persistent, so I decided to meet with his research team and learn more about their research concern.
As part of its mission, the new interdisciplinary University was committed to working with local communities and counties helping them address environmental concerns. The issue on its face seemed to be fairly simple, but a closer analysis revealed a far more complex problem that I will discuss in several blogs. There are approximately 9,500 lakes in Wisconsin, most of them natural. The research concern in this case was a lake located in Northeastern Wisconsin.
The lake is approximately 2 miles by 4 miles with a surface area of 2,410 acres. The Lake Noquebay Dam constructed in 1929 slightly elevates the water level to between 666.2 feet and 664.95 feet. It is the largest Lake in the county and at that time contributed one-fourth of the tourist income to the county. The lake had a diverse fish population, bluegill,crappie,bass, walleye, northern pike, trout, rock bass, perch and muskellunge. In turn, tourism was a major industry for the county. The problem identified initially by the Agricultural Extension Agent and Marinette County leaders was “swimmer’s itch” and the concern was the negative impact it could have on the lake’s attraction as recreational area.
Swimmer’s itch is a short-term immune reaction that occurs in the skin of humans who have been infected by water-borne parasites that enter the skin and raise red itchy bumps or welts that commonly occur within hours of infection and generally do not last more than a week. Basically, they are harmless but frightening to people who don’t know what they are and concerned about some kind of parasite infection – a potential disaster for the local tourist business.
The cycle of the parasite uses snails and ducks as hosts in their parasitic life cycle. During their life cycle the parasites enter the lake through duck feces and are eaten by water snails. Then the larvae of the parasite leave the snails and swim freely in the freshwater in search of water birds like ducks and accidentally come into contact with skin of swimmers. The larvae penetrate the skin and die immediately. The larvae cannot infect humans, but they cause an inflammatory immune reaction. The reaction causes itchy spots on the skin that will disappear in a week. Swimmer’s itch has been reported in lakes around the world.
The treatment that had been applied to control the snail population was to dump copper sulfate on the lake bottom as a molluscicide to kill the snails in swimming areas where swimmer’s itch was causing a problem. The efficacy of using copper sulfate was not clear, however, because offshore winds roil the water and easily dissipate the copper sulfate and move the snails across the bottom of the lake. An additional concern was the long term effect of copper sulfate on the Lake’s ecosystem.
The leader of the research team was an aquatic biologist who earned his PhD at the University of Miami. While a graduate student he worked on a research project in Biscayne Bay that had been opposed by Florida Power & Light and became entangled in the politics of Dade County. He told me he vowed never to enter another research effort without having a lawyer and political scientist on the research team. Since I was both, he asked if I would work with him and his colleagues. I thought his point was interesting and so I agreed to work with the team.
The team was composed of a PhD Aquatic Biologist, PhD Analytical Chemist, PhD Economist, PhD Leisure Scientist, PhD Vertebrate Ecologist, a Marinette County/University of Wisconsin Resource Development Agent and me – a JD Attorney and PhD Political Scientist. The political entities having jurisdiction over Lake Noquebay were Two Townships – (Middle Inlet and Lake), Marinette County and the State of Wisconsin. Since the Lake is not a navigable stream as defined by the Northwest Ordinance 1787, the federal government was not involved.
Defining The Lake Watershed
The first step was to identify the parameters of the Lake Noquebay watershed so that we could define the scope of our research project. Next we needed to examine the watershed itself. The lake watershed covered 54,000 acres. Approximately 85% of this land was forested. The remainder, interspersed over the watershed was agricultural cropland and pasture (or “open” land) and contained 66 farms. A County Forest and State wildlife area were located on the east side of watershed. The research team examined the flora and fauna of Lake Noquebay, tested the water chemistry and conducted a survey of residents and businesses around the lake.
The economy of the Lake Noquebay watershed was supported by agriculture, forestry, tourist and resort oriented business, with a recreation industry being predominant. There were nine resorts surrounding the lake with a total of 108 units. Including the resort units there were 301 living quarters on the lake of which 41 were year-round residences and 136 summer homes and cottages.
The quality of the water was showing symptoms of accelerated eutrophication. The most serious symptom of management problems in the watershed was the proliferation of benthic weeds, particularly watermilfoil (Myriophyllum heterophyllum). The presence of the plant appeared to be associated with deep – one to ten feet – sedimentary deposits which were believed to consist primarily of partially decomposed organic matter, some of which indicated poorly conceived dredging and filling operations in the drainage basin. About 300 acres of the lake were affected with the excessive growth, amounting to an estimated biomass about 5000 tons (net weight).
To the best of the research team’s knowledge, this weed had not been previously reported as a problem in the Upper Great Lakes Region. The best information available about problem quantities of this type of vegetation was in the Tennessee Valley Authority reservoirs as well as in mucky areas of the southeastern United States. What started out as an effort to deal with swimmer’s itch evolved into a more pervasive problem affecting the lake that would become a major focus of the research team.
Eutrophication already was a problem in a number of lakes in North Central and Northeastern Wisconsin, ranging from untreated sewage effluent and agricultural runoff to decomposed organic matter from forestry operations. In addition, there were new efforts to carve channels in marshy areas to build new homes with direct water access to the lake. Since the most severe form eutrophication can turn a lake into a bog killing the fish population, it destroys the lake as human recreational area.
Legal and political analyses were undertaken to determine which governmental units were capable of influencing the management of body of water such as Lake Noquebay, and to indicate potential problems existing in the realm of overlapping or dual legal jurisdiction. During Phase I of the research program, a preliminary study of Marinette County zoning laws and the legal actions related to these laws was carried out. It was determined that the control of activities on the lake – such as boating – fell under the jurisdiction of the township governments. In the case of Lake Noquebay, this involved two townships (Middle Inlet Township and Lake Township).
The control of water levels and the use of pesticides was under the jurisdiction of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Lakeshore zoning is a Countey responsibility. Since the legislation of 1965 and 1967 which created the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, considerable power over the management of waters in the State was concentrated in the DNR, necessitating a study of the lines of communication and administration and its regulatory and enforcement powers.
Since my father chaired the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and taught Geomorphology, Geography of Wisconsin, Conservation, Environmental Management and also chaired the Scientific Areas Preservation Council for Wisconsin, much of what I learned about Lake Noquebay, was familiar to me. In turn, I was teaching courses on Environmental Policy and Environmental Law at my University. This provided a useful convergence of our backgrounds. Ironically, during the first summer of our research, “swimmer’s itch” was absent from the Lake, however, the proliferation of Myriophyllum Heterophyllum presented a significant problem to the future of the lake as a recreational area.
I will return to the Lake Noquebay research project in several future blogs. It was an interesting case that illustrated the difficulties of addressing an environmental issue of interest to a population with diverse social and economic interests and concerns. It also highlighted the political and legal difficulties of trying to address these interests and concerns.
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