Onalaska’s nine-foot fiberglass sunfish perches on a Great River Road overlook with a spectacular view of Lake Onalaska, the Mississippi River and the Minnesota bluffs.

I thought when it was put there it detracted from the natural beauty of the area. But thousands of tourists who pose in front of it have a different view. Public art can’t please everyone, but it may still serve a useful purpose, in this case as a tourist attraction.

The controversy over the Hiawatha statue in La Crosse’s Riverside Park, a part of the photographic record of many a tourist’s visit, is another matter, however. Its future is being considered by city officials following criticism that the 25-foot statue is a stereotype and offensive to native Americans and should be removed.

One can understand, then, the risks officials take in siting public art. The uncertain fate of the “Hatched Baby” sculpture comes to mind — a nine-foot high gift to the city of La Crosse from sister city Friedberg, Germany, that sits in storage waiting for a place to be displayed. Its huge, royal blue baby head emerging from a cracked egg has received mixed reviews, some of them using the word “creepy.”

Wolfgang Auer, the sculptor of the resin and fiberglass piece, has created a series of “Blue Babies” that have been on display all over Europe, according to notes from the Miami University Art Museum where it was to be displayed. The works “have to do with the anxieties that Auer associates with parenthood,” according to the museum notes.

In that light, it’s possible that the blue baby can have a useful purpose in additoin to whatever artistic merit it may have.

The “Hatched Baby” reminds me of the blue baby syndrome, and that’s certainly a parenthood anxiety, particularly in areas of the state where, due to karst geology, nitrate pollution in water poses a threat to babies. A baby affected by the nitrate poisoning develops skin with a blue tinge, hence the name of the syndrome. Untreated, the condition can be fatal.

The La Crosse County Health Department last year urged some 2,000 residents of the towns of Onalaska and Holland to have their well water sampled. Of 451 wells that were tested for nitrates, 29 percent showed nitrate levels over the allowable 10 parts per million, the safe limit, according to regulations. The department acted after receiving belated reports of contamination from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The Legislative Audit Bureau last June had revealed significant problems with the DNR’s enforcement of the Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination System.

The state is working on stricter rules for manure spreading, one of the sources of nitrate pollution, but the stricter rules will apply only in eastern counties where the shallow topsoil over fractured bedrock characteristic of karst geology allow pollutants to percolate quickly to the groundwater. The problem is that western Wisconsin, including La Crosse County, has the same conditions, according to a map by the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey on the DNR’s website. So far, the proposed rules will not cover western Wisconsin.

Monica Kruse, county board supervisor, was quoted at the time saying that the contamination problems here were being experienced in many other areas of the state and that it was part a failure of the DNR and elected state officials to deal with water quality issues.

Maybe a public display of the blue baby would prompt some discussions along the lines of how we could relieve parental anxieties about water pollution, reminding us of the unresolved issues of statewide water quality. Or maybe La Crosse should be so generous as to send the blue baby on a tour to all the counties in the state at risk for groundwater contamination or, failing that, a showing at the state capitol where these issues must ultimately be resolved.

The karst map is at: http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/nonpoint/documents/nr151/20161028/ShallowCarbonateWIfs.pdf.

Dave Skoloda is an award-winning journalist and former owner and editor of the Onalaska Community Life and Holmen Courier.

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Coulee Courier and Houston County News editor

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