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Willow River awaits water quality upgrade plan

Kyle Kulow, watershed land specialist with the St. Croix County Land and Water Conservation Department, faces the big challenge of having to reduce phosphorus levels in the Willow River. He's pictured on the dock near the New Richmond dam.

The Willow River has too much phosphorus flowing into it and steps are being taken to address the issue.

Phosphorus is a huge problem in rivers and lakes as too much of it promotes vegetation growth and harms overall water quality. It can also have a big impact on fish and the aesthetics of a body of water.

According to Kyle Kulow, watershed land specialist with the St. Croix County Land and Water Conservation Department, a plan to reduce phosphorus levels in the waterway will soon be approved by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Following a 30-day period for public comments, the plan will be considered by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, approved and moved to the implementation stage.

Once that happens, the difficult work of trying to reduce the Willow River's phosphorus TMDLs (total maximum daily loads) by 65 percent will begin.

"It's a huge challenge and will only be accomplished in the long term," Kulow said. "The municipalities, ag community and lake associations will need to cooperate to reach that goal. In short, everybody has a part to play."

The largest contributing factor to the high phosphorus levels in the Willow River are agricultural fields that have been enhanced with fertilizer or manure, Kulow said. When rains come, those nutrients can wash into the river and cause problems for everyone downstream.

Another contributing factor is the villages and cities that discharge their sewage treatment effluent and storm water run-off into the Willow. New Richmond and Clear Lake are the two biggest municipal phosphorus dischargers along the length of the river. New Richmond currently meets EPA requirements but efforts to reduce phosphorus levels even more could be costly.

Homeowners along the river, and especially at Lake Mallalieu in Hudson, also add to the TMDL levels when lawn fertilizers with phosphorus end up in the water.

One other source of phosphorus is much more difficult to pinpoint. Decaying leaves and other material that drops into the river can add to the overall level.

Following monitoring and water quality testing from 1999 to 2006, the Willow River was designated as a river needing action. And because the Willow's water eventually empties into the St. Croix River, a federally-protected riverway, the water quality of this smaller river is even more environmentally significant.

"There are 22 watersheds that contribute water into the St. Croix," Kulow reported. "We're number two in terms of contributing to the phosphorus in the St. Croix."

As a result, the EPA will establish a specific TMDL number that will serve as a goal for those trying to cut the Willow's phosphorus levels.

Kulow said the Land and Water Conservation office will then begin to work with farmers, communities and shoreline property owners to cut the phosphorus that is ending up in the river.

One specific target area will be the farmers that have land along Dry Run Creek to the east of New Richmond. Kulow said the land of about 45 active farmers contributes to phosphorus run-off into the Willow River.

"It's a huge drainage area," Kulow said. "And there's a huge amount of erosion in that area."

The county has a limited amount of "cost sharing" grant funds to help farmers in that drainage area to institute practices to cut phosphorus levels in neighboring fields.

A farmer council will be appointed in the Dry Run Creek area to examine ways to address phosphorus levels, Kulow explained. The council will consider such measures as no-till farming practices, alternative crop rotation methods, and nutrient management changes to cut the phosphorus draining into the river.

"Much of the work will eventually be done with individual farmers," he said.

Downstream, the county will likely work with homeowners to organize fall leaf collections to reduce the amount of decaying material that ends up in river. There will also be educational efforts to encourage homeowners to avoid applying fertilizer with phosphorus on their lawns, Kulow said.

"We're going to try and implement best management practices along the river," he said.

While there are no penalties assigned to the phosphorus reduction effort if the 65 percent goal is not achieved, Kulow said the EPA and state of Wisconsin expects all rivers with established TMDL goals to make "reasonable efforts" to improve water quality.

"We're supposed to get as much of a reduction as we can," he said. "And it will be over the course of several years, even if there's really no timeframe put to it."

Once the plan is approved and implemented, the county will begin monitoring water quality along the Willow to see what if any progress is being made. Monitoring stations will be installed aboved and below the New Richmond dam, at the Willow River State Park falls and at Lake Mallalieu.

"The hope is that we improve water quality all the way up the system," Kulow said.

While the Willow River is currently the only waterway with a TMDL plan in the process of being approved, Kulow said he expects the Apple and Kinnickinnic rivers to also have phosphorus reduction efforts in place in the future.