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End the charade

Nobody had a twinkle in his eye like the late Frank Zebro, Marathon County supervisor from the town of Emmet.

And that twinkle never gleamed so brightly than when Zebro, a member of the Land Conservation Committee, hauled out old county conservation manifestos and, in reading them aloud, pointed out the problems of cropland erosion, phosphorus and nitrogen run-off and water pollution that dog us decade after decade without improvement despite millions of dollars spent by government.

We think then that Zebro could only wryly smile if shown the newly drafted goals of a new county 10-year Land and Water Resource Management Plan presented to the Environmental Resources Committee on June 30. The supervisor would read the plan’s lofty goals, its targeted outcomes and promise to clean up the environment and know it is all well intentioned applesauce. He would see through the charade in a minute.

The plan’s goal statements contain some fine thinking, good analysis and mature insights. But they are founded on a lie. And that is the idea that Marathon County on its own can somehow clean up its share of the Wisconsin River Basin. It can’t.

The goal statements of the plan are intricate and comprehensive, but, as a bottom line, they offer a way to put the county on a path to meet the phosphorus targets outlined in the DNR’s Total Maximum Daily Load study of the basin. The plan is to reduce by half phosphorus loss from cropland through cover crops and reduced tillage and, going further, installing 25,000 linear feet of 35-foot wide grassy buffer strips along basin streams, creeks and rivers. The hope, not yet nailed down in computer modelling, is that this one-two punch will drop phosphorus loss to one pound per acre.

But the county by itself cannot make this happen. Yes, the county can try to woo farmers with programs and grants to have them try no-till cropping, but the reality is, farmers don’t control most of the county’s productive ag land. Landlords do. These are people who have no patience to learn notill agriculture, but only want a land rental check. They are not much interested in building their land’s soil health over years. They merely want something green growing on their property this year so they can claim a Use Value Assessment property tax break.

Second, the plan calls for buying miles of riparian buffers, but the county does not have the millions of dollars it will take to buy this land. And, third, the county could try to knock down phosphorus pollution through tighter regulations, but, under state law, it lacks the authority to make much of a difference.

The Environmental Protection Agency has identifi ed the Wisconsin River Basin as impaired and polluted. It has told the state DNR to clean things up. The DNR, in turn, now leans on municipalities for phosphorus reduction at wastewater treatment plants. It also is leaning on counties to throw together farmer-led watershed groups who will change cropping practices. And that’s what the DNR wants to see in county land and water plans.

But this is all DNR stagecraft, not a serious effort to clean up the environment.

The Environmental Resources Committee should resist playing this game of make-believe. It needs to tell state officials in a meeting that it will take new, creative state policies and significant funding to clean up the Wisconsin River Basin. Maybe a statewide buffer mandate, like Minnesota has. Maybe a Use Value Assessment program targeted only to non-polluting crops. Maybe a phosphorus credit program. Or maybe additional cost sharing for Nutrient Management Plans.

Without a robust state partnership, a county effort will struggle and, after another 10 years, local waters, including the Big Eau Pleine Reservoir, will only turn a darker shade of green.

And Frank Zebro’s grinning skepticism will, once again, be proven out.

Editorial by Peter Weinschenk, The Record-Review