Carolyn Mahlum-Jenkins: Curb nutrient pollution in La Crosse River marsh
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Carolyn Mahlum-Jenkins: Curb nutrient pollution in La Crosse River marsh

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Carolyn Mahlum-Jenkins

Carolyn Mahlum-Jenkins

During March, La Crosse River marsh entertained numerous people escaping the safer-at-home environment for a change of pace and exercise.

The diversity of people, pets and modes of transportation throughout the marsh was pleasant to see but worrisome.

I often overheard children ask their parents what the green slime was on the surface of the water and where did it come from. Some pet owners were dragging their dogs away from the water telling them they couldn’t drink it because it might be polluted.

It was mid-March and already the algae were in bloom in excessive enough amounts to be noticed frequently and the topic of conversations.

Nutrient pollution is one of America’s most widespread, costly and challenging environmental problems, and it is caused by excess nitrogen and phosphorus in the air and water.

Nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus are naturally part of the ecosystem and support the growth of algae and aquatic plants, which provide food and habitat for fish and smaller organisms that live in the water.

Too much nitrogen and phosphorus in the water causes algae to grow faster than the ecosystem can handle. Significant increases in algae can harm water quality, food resources and decrease the oxygen that fish and other aquatic life needs to survive.

Excess of nutrients coupled with increasing temperatures can cause an explosion of nutrients called algal blooms. These blooms can be foamy, scummy or a thick mat of slime on the surface of our waters. Some algal blooms are harmful and toxic to people, pets and downstream habitat.

Awareness is the first step in preventing and curbing nutrient pollution. We can all take action to reduce nutrient pollution through the choices we make around the house, with our pets and in lawn maintenance.

Be mindful when purchasing detergents and household cleaners. Fertilize your lawn naturally by using a mulching mower. Mulch your leaves into your lawn in the fall and don’t leave leaves in the curb gutter or street.

If you buy commercial lawn fertilizers, buy a brand with reduced phosphorus or phosphorous-free and apply according to instructions. (Less is more). Nutrient pollution also comes from farm runoff, faulty septic systems and sewage treatment plants.

We all can play a part in maintaining a healthy marsh. The Friends of the La Crosse River Marsh value the marsh. To learn more go to

Water that flows into the marsh comes from many sources.

These include rainfall, stormwater runoff from the watershed, urban stormwater runoff from the city and residential areas and groundwater.

The amount of hard surface and types of landscaping can also increase the runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus. The water flows off our roofs into our yards and then down the street to the storm sewers.

From these storm sewers the water flows underground through a stormwater conveyance system to be delivered directly into the marsh, creeks and the Mississippi River. This is where we as residents and businesses owners in the community can make a difference.

La Crosse is not unique with nutrient pollution-algae blooms.

Other communities in Wisconsin have faced nutrient pollution issues. Friends of Lake Wingra in Madison have been working on water quality with the city; DNR and residents through a coordinated watershed management plan to control excessive algae blooms.

This project is proof that a communitywide approach to reduce excess nutrients can be done and water quality restored.

The city of La Crosse Stormwater Utility provides credits to encourage actions by property owners (residential and non-residential) within the city to reduce stormwater quantity reductions or improve stormwater quality by reducing total suspended solids pollutant loadings to surface waters.

Credits to stormwater user fees are available when it can be demonstrated by the customer that a condition or activity on the property results in meeting either of the above conditions. Rain gardens, rain barrels, stormwater bioretention cells, permeable pavement and other stormwater best management practices can be found on the city of La Crosse website . Residents are encouraged to participate in this program to reduce pollution impacts on the marsh and other surface waters.

Carolyn Mahlum-Jenkins is a Friends of the March board member.


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