The "Doing the Right Thing for our Lakes and Rivers" workshop, hosted last month by the Vilas County Lakes and Rivers Association (VCLRA) and the Oneida County Lakes and Rivers Association (OCLRA), drew attendees from several counties. Although it was a rare day with plenty of sunshine and no rain, the Northwoods Center at Nicolet College was packed with riparian landowners looking to learn more about a variety of topics such as the Wisconsin Shoreland Initiative, shoreland stewardship and how lake health can affect local economies.
Mike Engelson is the director of Wisconsin Lakes, a statewide lobbying organization, who started the workshop with an update on the Wisconsin state budget as well as some other pieces of policy relating to shoreland stakeholders. There were several things in the budget, he said, which impacted water policy and held DNR funding basically stable from the past budget in terms of its work related to lakes and rivers. However, due to some proposals regarding possible changes in transportation funding, the future picture may look somewhat different. This could cause some funding changes for surface water grants if the motor boat gas tax were to be affected. At that time, he said, he was watching it all closely and Wisconsin Lakes would make their opinions of any changes known to legislators and voice any concerns they may have.
Engelson also spoke about the proposed general dredging permit from the DNR. He said he was expecting a revised permit to come out due to public response the department received.
"They received hundreds, I heard over 800 comments, in response to the original permit," he said. "The impression that I got was that most of them were not favorable. But there is significant legislative pressure to do this."
He said the general permit would allow close to shore dredging up to 25-cubic yards over five years. Wisconsin Lakes, he said, was highly opposed to it. "There's no notice. There is very little exact specifications for how the work would be done. There are a whole host of problems."
An audience member asked the question, "Who wants to dredge? Who are all these people who are passing this law because they are dying to dredge?"
Engelson said the same question was asked in a meeting he attended in Madison. The question did not seem to have a good answer, he said, other than the DNR was doing this as something that was legislatively directed. He said the original issue started, from what he knew, as one pier to which a few certain individuals needed access, and then somehow turned into a potential statewide legislative policy.
"One possible answer to that question is the aquaculture industry," said OCLRA president Bob Martini. " (State Sen. Tom) Tiffany's aquaculture bill is scheduled to be signed in a week or so. That would allow aquaculture in inland lakes and rivers. Most of those operations need some kind of physical alteration to place those pens."
He said he saw this as an example of an industry which might take advantage of a dredging change. Engelson said he was not sure if it would apply to a business such as that. Wisconsin Lakes remained neutral on that bill.
"The navigable waters stuff is not good by any stretch of the imagination and needs to be watched," Engelson said. "It's still a relatively new industry. The bill was going to pass. There was no question about whether that was going to happen. I kept it neutral to sort of keep some doors open for whatever is coming next. It doesn't mean we are not concerned or are not watching very carefully the provisions in the bill or what will actually happen on the ground."
He said some wetland provisions in the bill were changed and as a result many wetland partners were not as strongly opposed to the bill in its current form.
"What we've learned from Atlantic salmon aquaculture process is that huge amounts of waste go into the water. Antibiotics are used. Genetically modified fish are used, and none of the nets are escape-proof," Martini said. "There is a reason why the DNR's own hatcheries have to get a waste discharge permit, because they produce a lot of waste. These are confined animal feed lots in an aquatic environment. So those are some real problems." Whether the industry is large or not, he said, those types of problems would likely occur.
Wisconsin Shoreland Initiative concerned with dredging, shore land zoning
John Richter also spoke about the proposed general permit. He said it is easier to get a general permit in the state than a fishing license. Therefore, the Wisconsin Shoreland Initiative, the group of which he is president, was very fearful of what that legislation could mean for Wisconsin waters. The night before the workshop he received a changed proposal, however. That proposal, among other changes, made walleye waters in the ceded territory exempt and said dredging on a waterbody could not conflict with the established lake management plan for that body of water. It also does not allow dredging in an area of special natural resource interest. There would also be no dredging of sand, rock, gravel or rubble bottoms. The proofs that would need to be submitted, he said, were very rigorous and he did not feel the average homeowner would be able to complete that portion on their own. There were still some negatives to the proposal, he added. One was that there was still no notice needed to neighbors, lake districts or town lake committees. There were also some loose definitions Richter felt should be tightened up.
Another concern he and the Wisconsin Shoreland Initiative had was it was not clear who, if anyone, would ever come out to inspect any of these projects. He felt it likely they would not be inspected at all. While the overall legislation looked better, he said, there were still several issues.
He also spoke about the fight to return shoreland zoning to the county level, which has been a very hot topic all over the Northwoods. The Wisconsin Shoreland Initiative has been very active in Vilas County, but has been unable to spur the Vilas County Land and Water Committee into action in regards to a petition to go on record as in favor of returning that control and using the lake classification system the county had developed. He expressed his frustration with the Land and Water Committee's decision to not take up the petition at many regularly scheduled meetings, which he attended.
"They don't want to vote it up or down," Richter said. "And I'm not sure I really care. They are dodging it. Every decision made in that county by the power is made on a political basis. They are not a group that is encumbered by facts or science. There needs to be a water change in Vilas County."
He asked all attendees to think about that when they cast their votes. "There are a couple of supervisors who picked it up," he said. "Marv Anderson and Carolyn Ritter are trying to push this through on their own. And I think that's probably where it's going."
He noted that he did not expect the county to change but wants to keep the issue boiling and keep pushing for the return of control to the county.
Oneida County supervisor Bob Mott is head of the Oneida County Conservation Committee. He gave attendees information regarding the cost share program, which helps landownerss complete shoreland projects and other restorative undertakings around their lakes. Information about that program can be found by contacting the county land and water conservation departments. It involves only a one-page application, he said, making it very easy for landowners to get involved. From there, the committee selects which projects to fund, as funds are limited, and the process moves on from there. The county would reimburse up to 50 percent of the project up to $15,000.
This year, five projects have already been approved, expending the $27,500 budgeted for this year. Five projects were also on the waiting list for 2018 in Oneida County. Mott said funding cuts have forced the committee to choose which projects it will fund, versus funding every project to come through, which used to be the case. He also warned there were plans to cut conservation funds by $10,000 in each county, further diminishing the funds available for the cost share program. He urged attendees to contact their legislators if they don't feel this cut would be beneficial.
The shoreline area just north of the town hall in Pelican Lake is an example of a project reimbursed with funds from Lumberjack Resource Conservation and Development. A shoreland buffer zone was planted with native species in 2014, and now serves as a shining example of the benefits of shoreland restoration.
Mott also spoke out against removing shoreland zoning from county control.
"There are counties that have no interest in this at all," he said. "They don't have what we have. They don't have a tourism-driven economy and so they're not interested. So I can understand that. But I can't understand it here."
Mott then called for a change in attitude of the legislators and for more protections for water quality. With a $221 million tourism industry, he said, these protections are needed. He said 76 percent of assessed value in Oneida County comes from riparian properties. If nothing is done to preserve the water quality and property values drop due to poor water quality, services would have to be cut or taxes would have to be raised.
This fight to balance the public trust doctrine with personal property rights is certain to continue as the counties grapple with how exactly to handle this divide and whether they should or how they should, make their positions known. Mott, too, called on all attendees to speak up for their own positions and to make their voices heard.
The meeting went on with a discussion about the economic value of lake and river front properties and what that means to our counties in a segment entitled, "Healthy Lakes - Healthy Economies." From there an interactive session was held for attendees to voice concerns and best practices from their own experiences. The day ended with each county-wide lake and river association holding their annual meetings, which were also very well attended by individuals from each county.
Beckie Gaskill may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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