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A Great Lakes wetland monitoring program is aiding efforts to clean up a polluted hotspot in Wisconsin

The DNR is using data from the Great Lakes Coastal Wetland Monitoring Program to prioritize restoration efforts in the Lower Green Bay and Fox River

The Fox River runs through downtown Green Bay
The Fox River runs through downtown Green Bay in 2014. Chris Rand/CC BY-SA 4.0

A program to monitor coastal wetlands across the Great Lakes is helping support efforts to clean up one of the most polluted hotspots in the region.

The Great Lakes Coastal Wetland Monitoring Program has been monitoring the health of more than 1,000 wetlands in the region since 2011. Crews collect data from around 200 wetlands each year to evaluate water quality and the state of breeding birds, fish and amphibians. More than 400,000 acres of coastal wetland habitats have been assessed, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The program and researchers with the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay have been working closely with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to develop a strategy for measuring priority populations and habitats for fish and wildlife in lower Green Bay, according to Erin Giese. She’s a principal investigator for the program, and she’s also a senior researcher at the Cofrin Center for Biodiversity at UW-Green Bay.

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The site is part of the Lower Green Bay and Fox River Area of Concern, which is one of the most contaminated sites on the Great Lakes. As part of that, Giese told WPR’s “The Morning Show,” they’re using metrics developed through the program to measure indicators of the health of the ecosystem.

“And generally it’s looking at species that are sensitive to human disturbance, pollution and other factors like that,” Giese said.

The site is one of 43 areas designated by the U.S. and Canada as the most polluted hotspots across the Great Lakes in 1987.

Pulp and paper mills used polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, to make carbonless copy paper. The process contaminated the river with nearly 700,000 pounds of the chemicals during the 1950s and 1960s before they were later banned. That resulted in the removal of more than 8 million cubic yards of polluted sediment or enough to fill 700,000 dump trucks, according to the DNR. Stormwater runoff from agriculture and urban areas have also led to excess nutrients in the area.

As a result, the site was listed for 11 known and two suspected impairments to beneficial uses of the area due to significant environmental degradation, of which several have been removed. Data from the Great Lakes Coastal Wetland Monitoring Program has helped the Wisconsin DNR figure out where to devote wetland restoration efforts, according to Madeline Magee, the agency’s Great Lakes and Mississippi River monitoring program coordinator for the Office of Great Waters.

“We look at the data to say which wetlands may be in a more degraded status, and which ones we think have essentially ripe conditions for us to go in and make a really big impact with our limited funding,” Magee told WPR’s “The Morning Show.”

UW-Green Bay researchers developed a way to evaluate the health of two impairments to the site that include degraded fish and wildlife populations and the loss of their habitats. As part of that work, they prioritized 18 habitats and 22 fish and wildlife populations within the ecosystem. The habitats include Great Lakes beach and various marshes, and they include populations of mussels, waterfowl and shoreline fish. Then, researchers developed a tool to rank the condition of those habitats or populations from best to worst.

“Once restoration projects are complete, we will be continuing to use their data and working with Erin to collect additional data to essentially assess how impactful and how effective those habitat restoration projects were,” Magee said.

State and federal agencies aim to complete work to restore and clean up polluted sites like the Lower Green Bay and Fox River by 2030. The project, along with the Great Lakes Coastal Wetland Monitoring Program, is supported by funding through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The Great Lakes cleanup program funds restoration work on the lakes.

The program has provided around $3.7 billion for more than 7,500 projects since its creation in 2010. Last year, President Joe Biden and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the Great Lakes cleanup program would receive a $1 billion boost to accelerate restoration efforts on the lakes.

Magee and Giese highlighted the benefits of restoring wetlands since they filter pollutants and provide habitat for various species, as well as recreational and economic benefits.

Wisconsin has lost about half of its wetlands over time with about 5.3 million acres that remain. Last week, the EPA released a revised rule that eliminated protections for most of the nation’s wetlands, according to NPR. The change follows a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in May that found the EPA could no longer regulate discharges into wetlands that don’t have a “continuous surface connection” to nearby waterways. Giese said the ruling poses serious implications for Great Lakes wetlands.

“They really soak in all of those nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, and some heavy metals, and keep that from being transported then into the Great Lakes. So they really help make sure that our Great Lakes water quality is of high caliber,” Giese said. “This (ruling) is really not a good thing at all when you’re thinking about drinking water or recreating in the water.”

However, wetlands in Wisconsin may fare better than other states. The state’s protection of waters through courts, legislation and the Public Trust Doctrine mean Wisconsin is likely to see fewer effects from the Supreme Court ruling. While the decision removes oversight of a “large amount” of wetlands, the DNR has said it will continue to use the state’s wetland program to regulate projects that propose to impact wetlands.