Overlooking the Rock River, the Fort Atkinson Club community center was the perfect venue for the Rock River Coalition’s “Testing the Waters: A Paddle and Probe Adventure” Monday evening.
On May 15, the coalition kicked off an 11-day paddle down the Rock River, during which kayakers and canoeists are using special equipment to gather water quality data and upload it to a website, where it is displayed in real time. The group has been presenting its findings at educational events in communities all along the route.
The paddlers’ stop in Fort Atkinson Monday marked Day Nine of the trip, which began May 15 in Mayville. Over the next two days, they will make their way to Beloit.
The evening’s keynote speaker was Andy Selle, Fort Atkinson city engineer, who provided a brief overview of the Rock River’s history in the Fort Atkinson area leading up to why Compas’ monitoring is so important today. Additionally, he discussed the city’s water quality improvements, progress made to date and goals for the future.
“We’ve made a tremendous amount of progress,” Selle said. “That river out there was an absolute cesspool with dead animals, trash, debris. We’ve come so far from then, and I think we forget about that.”
Selle explained that the Rock River formed about 14,000 years ago as the ice that covered the area melted. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest, Selle gave the water quality at the time a rating of about a 5.
Few humans were found in the area, no living organisms called the river home yet, and the river itself stretched from about Hackbarth Road to the Hoard’s Dairyman Farm, he noted.
Fast-forward 1,000 to 2,000 years ago, Selle said, and the river was in roughly the same location it is now. Large trees lined both banks, and the Lake Koshkonong area consisted of a large marsh that attracted people to hunt, gather and fish.
“(The marsh) was so important that all of the water we have now coming in on that north bank near Patten’s Marine, (the natives) put in an intaglio because it symbolized such an important source of fresh water,” Selle explained.
Selle rated the water quality at that time as a 10.
Then in 1634, the area saw its first European visitor.
“That was a big turning point in the quality of our water because Europeans came in with a much different view in what a river should be doing than the natives,” Selle said, adding the water quality from the 1600s to the early 1700s remained a 10.
About 100 years later, though, a mass expansion of Europeans hit the area. Around the 1830s, they began clearing and planting the land, which opened up the river to rainfall.
“This is probably the last time that the Rock River was as clear as a bell,” Selle said. “With European settlement and that disturbance, we had roads built, we had homes go up, we had early industry start to develop. But the scale was so small that it really had little impact on this big river we have, but it started; it had begun.”
At this time, the river for the first time was utilized as a resource, and water quality fell to a 6. In 1870, carp were introduced into the system.
“Carp by themselves could probably turn the river dark and brown regardless of what the water quality is,” Selle noted. “It was an absolutely decimating occurrence for Lake Koshkonong. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service realized too late what they had done and banned imports of carp, which only 30 years ago they had gone wholesale throughout the country, but the damage was already done.”
The removal of carp from Lake Koshkonong began in the early 1900s.
At that time, all water was plumbed directly to the river, and horse manure and human waste flowed into the river from unpaved roads. Selle rated the water quality at a 2.
In the 1930s, sewers and sewer treatment plants were introduced, improving water quality to about a 3.
Selle noted that the 1970s were a good time for water quality, with the creation of the Clean Water Act in 1972 and the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency , which began collecting data. Curb-and-gutter was installed throughout the City of Fort Atkinson and advances in wastewater technology were made. Water quality remained at a 3.
Restoration was born in the 1980s.
“People started realizing they could change what they see on the river,” Selle said.
Around the year 2000, stormwater and municipalities came together.
“We began to realize that when you pave huge areas, the time it takes (for water) to get in the river is cut to seconds,” Selle said, adding that this led to regulations for development and construction.
These regulations, in turn, created stormwater utility fees. Selle rated water quality at this time at a 5.
The term Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) also was largely put into place in the early 2000s. The TMDL is the total amount of pollutants you can put into the river to reach a high water quality.
Today, the City of Fort Atkinson continues to improve the water quality of the Rock River, which Selle rates at a 6.
He noted that the city recently purchased the former Larsen canning company lagoon property, which is a large wetland property next to Spacesaver Corp. where a lot of onion and food waste from the former McCain Foods and other past industries was dumped.
“It’s a natural opportunity for us to take stormwater that currently runs into a pipe and dump it into the lagoon that is a natural wetland and allow that water do what it used to do and move slowly through a wetland area before it gets to the river, and we’re going to see some improvements there,” Selle said.
He said the city also is looking at better utilization of the Rock River, which could have a large economic impact on the area.
“We’ve got great schools, we’ve got great people, we’ve got great venues; throw in a river that you can see crystal clear water in. Can you imagine the impact that would have economically?” Selle asked.
Simpler solutions like better leaf removal also is on Selle’s to-do list.
“We’re moving in the right direction, water quality and stormwater quality are moving in the right direction, and the City of Fort Atkinson is poised to lead that effort,” he concluded.
Also speaking Monday were the Rock River Coalition’s Suzanne Wade and Mark Riedel, state Department of Natural Resources Rock River TMDL coordinator.
A report from the river also was given by Eric Compas of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater’s Geography, Geology, and Environmental Sciences Department. The Fort Atkinson man developed the water quality-mapping device to expand on the Rock River Coalition’s citizen stream-monitoring program.
Compas, along with several UW-Whitewater students, shared what they had learned so far about the Rock River from their paddlers and displayed a view of the webmap where the public can watch the daily paddle.
He noted that each day, the group traveled eight to 17 miles on a leisurely paddle, as participants cannot go faster than the monitoring probes can sample the water.
The paddlers stopped periodically to take nutrient samples, perform other monitoring protocols and do video updates.