Agriculture contributes nearly half the phosphorus to the lower Fox River Valley. Many farms, like this one, have implemented conservation practices, but overall phosphorus loads to the bay have thus far remained unchanged or even gone up. Kate Golden / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
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GREEN BAY — A summit here on Wednesday aims to fix the the nutrient pollution that has caused fish kills and unsafe beaches throughout Wisconsin, as well as an annual recurring dead zone in the Lake Michigan bay.

“Since all of us live near the water, or use the water, or are affected by this large watershed, I felt it was important to bring the stakeholders together, and see if we could maybe stop pointing fingers at each other, and start pointing fingers at solutions,” said U.S. Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Wis., who is hosting the event at the Neville Museum.

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Secretary Cathy Stepp will give a keynote talk on the impact of phosphorus regulations on the economy, while conventional dairy and organic farmers will appear on a panel about phosphorus and business. Thomas Sigmund of NEW Water Green Bay, the municipal sewerage district, will talk about point source pollution.

A panel on curbing nonpoint pollution, moderated by Rep. Ribble, will include University of Wisconsin-Green Bay science professor Kevin Fermanich, the Wisconsin Farm Bureau, the DNR and the Natural Resources Conservation Services. Nonpoint pollution is runoff that travels across the land carrying pollutants to waters.

Absent from the list of speakers are environmental groups that have criticized the DNR and large livestock farms regarding the farms’ handling of liquid manure, which they say is a major contributor to the region’s fish kills, polluted wells and unsafe beaches.

Ribble said that the omission “wasn’t intentional” and that environmental groups had registered to attend. He anticipated the event could become a series.

Phosphorus fuels algal blooms in waters across the state and nation. In Lake Michigan, once the algae dies and falls to the bottom, microbes decaying it use up the surrounding oxygen and create a dead zone.

Scientists have found that most of the phosphorus enters the water over the course of a handful of major storm events each year.

The Clean Water Act cracked down on major point sources like sewage treatment plants. Now agriculture, largely exempt from that law, is by far the largest source of phosphorus to the lower Fox River basin, contributing an estimated 46 percent of the poundage each year.

Commonly discussed solutions to keeping farms’ phosphorus-rich soil out of the bay include terracing crops, buffering streams with grass strips and growing cover crops.

This story is part of Water Watch Wisconsin, a project supported by The Joyce Foundation examining the quality and supply of water statewide.

The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism ( collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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Kate Golden, multimedia director and reporter, specializes in environmental stories and data visualizations.