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Keeping it Blue: More than one way to pollute a lake
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Keeping it Blue: More than one way to pollute a lake

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Walworth County lakes, creeks and wetlands are vital to the county’s economy and quality of life. These remarkable and vital Walworth County resources lure residents, businesses and visitors to their shores for swimming, boating, fishing and viewing wildlife.

Unfortunately, many of these resources are threatened by storm water pollution caused by inadequate precautions during construction and other land-disturbing activities.

Sediment deposits decrease the overall quality of Walworth County lakes, streams and wetlands. Dirt from construction sites or other disturbed areas can wash into creeks and lakes, and harm fish by smothering their eggs and gills and preventing sight-feeding fish from finding their food in the cloudy water. Eroded soil contains phosphorus and other nutrients that, when discharged into water bodies, are released and can trigger algae blooms.

When land in Walworth County is under construction, soil erosion can be significant — often many times greater than land use for agriculture. To address this concern, Walworth County adopted Construction Site Erosion and Sediment Control regulations and permitting requirements in 1990. These regulations have been amended over the years to include storm water management performance standards for larger development sites and a host of refinements.

These regulations apply to most construction sites in the unincorporated areas of Walworth County and are under the watchful eyes of the Walworth County Land Conservation Division staff. Compliance with these regulations requires diligence by thoughtful contractors and landscapers and observant citizens who don’t hesitate to bring erosion and sedimentation issues to the attention of Walworth County.

Walworth County staff is grateful to these watchdogs.

Walworth County Land Conservation Division staff provides Construction Site Erosion and Sediment Control Permit coverage for more than 400 construction sites throughout Walworth County each year. Most of these permits are for construction sites within 1,000 feet of a lake or 300 feet of a stream. I can report that erosion and sediment control and housekeeping measures on construction sites throughout Walworth County can be better.

During construction inspections, Walworth County Land Conservation Division staff often note uncontained disturbed areas, lack of site stabilization on bare soil for long periods of time, and poor housekeeping practices, such as un-managed building waste and concrete or mortar washout. Site containment or perimeter control practices are required and commonly include the installation of silt fencing.

Many people think of the black silt fence as the primary way to contain sediment on a construction site. But this practice is only one small part of site containment, and does not always do the job. Silt fences are often installed improperly or installed and neglected. A silt fence is a sediment-control practice, not an erosion control practice. I have always said, the best silt fence is the one that is not needed. Instead, disturbed areas should be covered up with an erosion-resistant cover, such as vegetation, mulch, or other approved covering material.

We will continue to order contractors to stabilize disturbed areas that have been inactive for seven days or more. Contractors can seed and mulch or apply other covering methods to prevent erosion. Our permits now include requirements for concrete and mortar wash-out practices as well.

Walworth County does have a host of enforcement tools to address noncompliance issues on construction sites. An ordinance citation can be issued to the property owner and any contractor associated with the construction site. Although some may say this penalty is weak, receiving an ordinance citation can impact a contractor’s ability to obtain insurance or future customers. Often, the best enforcement tool is a stop-work-order placed on the construction site and not lifted until the site is brought into compliance. Construction must cease. With Wisconsin’s short construction season, any delay can be problematic to a contractor and a property owner.

Walworth County is experiencing the impacts of a changing climate. Recent rainfall events are more intense, occurring when the ground is fully saturated, and during the winter when the ground is frozen. These conditions result in more runoff with the energy to erode receiving banks and bottoms of channels and waterways.

Highly degraded and eroding ravines within the Geneva Lake Watershed are now observed. These eroding ravines are generating massive volumes of sediment that reach Geneva Lake and its tributaries. The Walworth County Land Conservation staff is currently evaluating many of these ravines to develop a strategy to repair them and prevent further erosion.

As a resident, property owner or visitor, you can do your part to limit sediment runoff into the county’s lakes and streams in a number of ways. During construction, if you see site-containment failures or muddy discharges into a lake, please report those to our office. The easiest way to do so is via email at lurm@co.walworth.wi.us. Be sure to include the address of the property and send along some photos.

If you are doing construction on your property, have a plan for stabilization and landscaping at the beginning of the project, not the end. Final landscaping seems to be the last task on the project schedule. It is vital to move final stabilization to the top of the construction punch list to protect the lake. Make sure all sediment-control best-management practices are being properly maintained. Hire contractors who are familiar with the county’s rules, regulations and performance standards.

If construction is ongoing after the growing season in late October, be sure your property is fully matted and stabilized to make it through the winter. Once construction is complete, the best way to keep Geneva Lake blue is to limit runoff from your property by choosing deep-rooted native plantings along the near-shore area.

“Keeping It Blue” is written by Geneva Lake Task Force members to inform and educate the public about water quality and other issues impacting Geneva Lake and how the public can help to address them. Comments and questions can be sent to glc@genevalakeconservancy.org.

Fay Amerson is a member of the Geneva Lake Task Force and is senior urban conservation specialist for the Walworth County Land Use and Resource Management Department.

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