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Great Lakes Week held in Milwaukee

Sarah Chayer, News Writer
September 19, 2013
Filed under News

More than 30 million people use its waterways for work and recreation.

Sept. 9 through 12 was Great Lakes Week in Milwaukee, where a gathering of scientists, academics and outdoor enthusiasts came together to form a plan of action to clean up and maintain the lakes.

The ongoing struggle to maintain the waters and reduce pollution entering the waterways was a primary topic during the weekend event, but this wasn’t the only topic of concern.

Along with pollution, those gathered at Great Lakes Week discussed other matters, including climate change and water levels. With warmer temperatures, more water is evaporating from the Great Lakes, having a dramatic effect on near-shore habitats.

Specifically in the Green Bay area, the main priority is reducing and eliminating polychlorinated biphehyl, or PCB, in the Fox River.

The Fox River has an almost greenish glow due to the PCB, a result of carbonless copy paper that was once deposited in the water prior to regulations. Ed Culhane, public affairs manager for Northeast Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said manure and fertilizer runoff has also contributed to the deterioration of this region’s lake water.

Public health concerns could become a matter of concern if these contaminants are not kept in check.

PCB is a carcinogen, and exposure to elevated levels over a long period of time can cause cancer, Culhane said.

“Because of the food chain, there have been some cases of reproduction issues as well,” Culhane said. “If people eat fish that are affected by the PCB, health issues could become apparent.”

The effects of runoffs and particularly PCB create a less than favorable living environment for fish in the Great Lakes. When pollution levels rise, oxygen decreases and fish populations are adversely affected. This makes the waterways less viable for commercial fishing and hurts the recreation industry as well.

“There will be less oxygen in the water when pollution levels increase, fish can’t survive as well,” said Rachel Van Dam, UW-Green Bay environmental science graduate student. “Pollutants will obviously make the fish sick.”

Fish are affected not only by the pollutants, but are also being displaced because of changes in water levels throughout Lake Michigan. Water levels have been decreasing for years due to changes in regional climate.

New limits have been made for sport fishing, and it is clear the number of fish in the water has been decreasing, Culhane said.

Discussion and action plans were created during Great Lakes Week, which included habitat restoration for fish being displaced due to decreasing water levels, Culhane said.

“It is one of the largest regional restoration projects ever,” Culhane said. “The current dredging project started in the early 1990s.”

The dredging in DePere and Green Bay has been funded through several contributors but primarily by companies whose businesses utilize the waterways most. The cost of this project has reached into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, Culhane said.