The La Crosse River had changed dramatically in the time Gretchen and I were on a trip recently. When we left our home on its bank in downtown La Crosse, it was a placid stream showing part of its muddy stream bed. When we returned the heavy rains that fell while we were gone had turned it into a glossy, brown slug, swollen bank to grassy bank, carrying its burden of silt to the Mississippi.
An armada of yellow leaves was drifting on the surface of the stream when I launched my kayak the day after we returned from Colorado. I slipped easily into the water by pushing off the muddy bank and drifted in the slow current for a time while I washed the mud off my hands and cleaned the paddle shaft. Then I headed upstream, ducking under a low branch of one of the spreading maple trees. Rounding a bend in the river, I came to where Silver Creek empties into the La Crosse after passing under the bridge for the Veteran’s bike trail. Just upstream of the confluence, an eddy carried a collection of maple and cottonwood leaves in a colorful clockwise circle dance. I let the kayak glide into the eddy and idly mused about the muddy water as I drifted with the leaves.
Ouray, the Colorado community where we visit family several times a year, also has a river running through it — the Uncompahgre. The two rivers are alike in that each of them has pollution issues — the Uncompahgre tainted with the toxic legacy of mining and the La Crosse laden with the sediment and its contaminants from the erosion during big rain events on ag land and runoff from urban development. The two rivers differ, though, in their connection to their respective communities. The Uncompahgre is rocky and raging during snowmelt and sometimes carries an orange hue from the contamination. It’s not attractive for recreation. The La Crosse, on the other hand, is a designated canoe trail through our communities, a beautiful place to paddle in spite of its murky water.
Neither river is likely to see cleanup efforts in the present political climate. Wisconsin is becoming known for lax environmental enforcement, including allowing more wetland development. Some GOP legislators are pushing to ease the state’s sensible restrictions on mining. They should visit the Uncompahgre and other rivers ruined by the acidic aftermath of mining. And the EPA, which in recent years stepped in to force Wisconsin to deal with water quality issues, is now in the hands of anti-regulation leadership.
These were heavy thoughts on a beautiful sunny afternoon. My kayak had drifted to the edge of the eddy and a paddle stroke carried me back into the current. Paddling downstream I emerged into the Mississippi, which carries the sediment from the La Crosse and its other tributaries to the Gulf of Mexico, a burden that adds to the “dead zone” in the Gulf.
After my recent outing on the La Crosse, I learned that the Government Accountability Office, the U.S. agency tasked with checking on the performance of agencies such as the EPA, has recommended EPA update its regulations for enforcing the 1972 Clean Water Act. GAO focused particularly on the load of pollutants permitted and getting tougher on enforcement of non-point pollution sources such as runoff from farmland.
In the GAO review, the “EPA reported that many of the nation’s waters are still impaired, and the goals of the act are not being met. Without changes to the act’s approach to non-point source pollution, the act’s goals are likely to remain unfulfilled.” The GAO recommended that Congress revise the Clean Water Act’s largely voluntary approach to limiting non-point pollution.
The water quality recommendations are among dozens of recommendations not implemented by EPA, the GAO reported in September. The water quality of the La Crosse is our constant reminder of the need for more, not less, regulation to achieve the nation’s water quality goals.