Where Have All the Trout Gone ?

*Article written and photo taken by Karen Ebert Yancey for the Kewaunee County Star-News on August 20, 2015*

When Joe Dorner bought 24 acres on Church Road adjacent to the East Twin River in the Town of West Kewaunee in 1996, he said it was listed in a brochure as the “finest trout stream in the county” and he looked forward to taking his grandchildren fishing there.

For several years, he and his four grandchildren fished the river and caught native brook trout and brown trout. But beginning in 2005, the trout began disappearing and today Dorner says the river is a sterile, lifeless water body.

“Nothing can live there,” he said. “I get so mad about it I can’t sleep at night.”

The degraded biological community that Dorner describes was recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in June when it placed Kewaunee County segments of the East Twin River, formerly DNR-designated Class I and Class II trout streams, on its Impaired Waters listing for excessive phosphorus.

In a county once known for its clear trout streams and rivers, all of Kewaunee County’s three rivers – including the Ahnapee and Kewaunee – are now on the EPA’s Impaired Waters list. The Kewaunee and Ahnapee rivers have been listed for PCB contamination since 1998, but the EPA added excessive phosphorus to the pollutants of the Ahnapee in 2014.

“Without the trout, this county can’t survive,” said Guy Nuechterlein, who operates a charter fishing business out of Kewaunee. He said he doesn’t fish the rivers anymore, but goes miles out into Lake Michigan to catch salmon and trout.

As the native trout disappear from the rivers, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) program to stock brown and rainbow trout in the county’s rivers and Lake Michigan has had only limited success, said Tom Kleiman, owner of Accurate Marine and Storage.

“Returns are not good on the stocked brown trout,” said Kleiman, who said that he worked with DNR personnel this spring to determine if raising brown trout in net pens would improve the returns. “Catch rates this summer are down, and I don’t know why,” he said.

“I remember when you could fish any of the rivers in Kewaunee County and come home with three or four trout for dinner,” said Joe Musial, who has owned land on the East Twin River for 58 years.

“There used to be rare wood turtles and hundreds of brook trout and endangered redside dace, as well as mink, otters, beavers, coons, muskrats and a number of rare birds on my land,” he said. “They are all gone … all the diversity is gone … the only wildlife that lives near the river now are deer.”

Dorner and Musial blame the loss of trout habitat on discharge from the Agropur cheese plant in Montpelier, upstream from their land. They also say excessive manure runoff from surrounding concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), including Hall’s Calf Ranch, is responsible for destroying aquatic life in the river.

In 2006, Agropur, then Trega Foods, was ordered by the DNR to pay $36,000 in fines for violating Wisconsin water pollution laws by failing to comply with limits on its wasterwater discharges.

According to the complaint, the cheese factory exceeded its effluent permit limits 25 times between 2004 and 2006. The cheese factory discharges into an unnamed tributary that flows into the East Twin River south of Highway 29. In July 2006, the company experienced a treatment plant failure that resulted in a drop in dissolved oxygen, which killed hundreds of fish in the East Twin River, including more than 80 brook trout.

Gene Jerovitz, who owns 80 acres on both sides of the East Twin River, said that the trout populations won’t come back until the plant stops discharging chloride into the river.

“The brook trout used to spawn on the gravel area of the river by my property,” he said. “But there are no trout there anymore, I have to go other places to fish.”

In 2012, Agropur, which is owned by a Canadian firm, announced that it was investing in a $100 million expansion of its Montpelier plant. The expansion, which includes a new 120,000 square foot building and improved whey processing and wasterwater treatment, was completed in 2014 and added 10 jobs to its workforce of more than 100.

“We are meeting water quality standards for chloride,” said Chris Simon, Agropur vice president of quality services. He said that the variance the plant received from the DNR allows them to discharge up to 390 ppm of chloride.

Although it appears that DNR standards for chloride were increased to a threshold of 395 ppm in 2012 and Agropur says its discharge is below that number, chloride from the plant still may be the reason trout are disappearing.

At chloride concentrations exceeding 250 ppm, chronic effects to aquatic life, can include poor reproduction and poor health, according to the EPA’s Ambient Aquatic Life Criteria.

The EPA also says that above 250 ppm, concentrations in lakes have been observed to impede natural mixing and stratification processes, which in time affect water quality and oxygen availability in the water body.

After several requests by the Kewaunee County Star-News, DNR external communications chief Jennifer A. Sereno said she needed more time to provide a copy of the Agropur permits or variance to confirm the numbers provided by Simon. An open records request was filed Aug. 14, and the DNR said it will take up to 20 business days to provide information on Agropur permits .

“Recent water quality analyses on the East Twin River indicates that the chloride criteria are being met, suggesting that chlorides are not the cause of biological impairment,” said Sereno. “The Wisconsin DNR follows a standardized procedure for developing variances which includes an opportunity for public input.”

Agropur’s permit expires on Sept. 30. No public notice or hearing regarding the Agropur variance has been scheduled. Musial and Dorner say they plan to ask that Agropur reroute its wastewater to the Luxemburg sewage treatment plant.

While Agropur has a permit to discharge into the East Twin River, J. Hall of Hall’s Calf Ranch at E2304 County F did not. He was fined $42,000 by the EPA in January for discharging wastewater into the East Twin River without a permit. The charges go back to 2011 and 2013, when EPA personnel reported that untreated wasterwater from Hall’s dairy operations was being discharged into the East Twin.

In spite of the violations, the DNR in 2013 approved a CAFO permit for Hall’s Calf Ranch that allowed it to expand to up to 6,800 calves that generate almost 2.9 million gallons of manure and processed wastewater and 22,000 tons of solid manure that are spread on 1,000 acres of fields in the East Twin River and and Lake Michigan drain basin.

“We have done everything the EPA and DNR has asked us to do and more,” said J. Hall. He said he has five children and “I want this place clean and healthy for them and their families.”

Some county officials are upset with what they consider the DNR’s failure to protect what was the county’s most pristine river. In 2002, the East and West Twin rivers were listed as DNR Legacy Sites, “critical natural resources” for meeting Wisconsin’s conservation and recreation needs over the next 50 years.

“I believe the Hall’s case was the worst intentional contamination of a waterway in Kewaunee County for many, many years, and it occurred over several years,” said Lee Luft, Kewaunee County Supervisor. “It was never fined by our own DNR. It took the EPA to investigate and fine Hall.”

Surveys completed by the DNR between 1974 and 1983 showed that the East And West Twin River had a large diversity of aquatic life,including coho salmon, rainbow trout, brown trout and brook trout as well as trout-perches and walleye.

An East Twin River Baseline Monitoring Report completed by the DNR in 2001 reported that upper sections in Kewaunee County were classified as Class 1 or Class 2 trout waters with “very good to excellent water quality.” The report noted 43 species of fish including two species of special concern – redside dace and greater redhorse – and many species of mussels and snails.

A risk assessment in the DNR report noted that ” management strategies should be designed to protect the high quality resources already present in this river.”

But a 2009 DNR Upper East Twin River Trout Survey, three years after the Agropur fish kill, noted that “brook trout numbers in the East Twin River below Highway 29 have declined since 2001.”

The report rated only two of the five fish population sites they tested in the county as “good” with two receiving “poor” rankings, including a site at Krok Road downstream from the Agropur plant, where no trout were found.

Fish captured at the Krok Road site downstream from Agropu are “tolerant species that are generally found in stream with low dissolved oxygen, disturbed habitat or moderate amounts of organic pollution,” the report said. “The lack of brook trout in this section could be caused by … ongoing contributions of warm water, chlorides and other substances.”

This report preceded a 2011-2012 report by Mary Gansberg and Steve Hogler of the DNR that reported that “analysis of the water chemistry and fisheries survey confirm what was suspected previously – the fish and aquatic life use of the upper reaches of the East Twin River and the Unnamed Tributary are impaired and not meeting phosphorus water quality standards.”

The report noted that while chloride levels did not exceed DNR limits, “acute and chronic toxicity” did occur in the unnamed tributary for three months in 2011.

In addition to reviewing the Agropur permit request this month, the DNR is reviewing a CAFO permit to allow Augustian Farms of Kewaunee, located in the East Twin River watershed, to expand its dairy operations by up to 900 animal units. If approved, the permit would allow the farm to spread 9.2 million gallons of manure and processed wastewater on area fields.

But John Pagel, Kewaunee County Land and Water chairman and the owner of a CAFO that has land in the East Twin watershed, said he doesn’t see a problem with adding another CAFO in the East Twin watershed because he said phosphorus pollution is caused not by excess phosphorus, but by soil erosion.

“You can’t overapply phosphorus,” he said. “The problem is the soil. If you use good practices, you shouldn’t have a problem.”

Charter fishermen, who depend on the salmon and trout populations for their livelihood are concerned about the pollution.

“The trout need to come up the river every year to spawn,” Nuechterlein said. “If the natural trout spawning sites are disappearing in the rivers, any fisherman should be concerned.”

In addition, Luft notes that excessive phosphorus from the East Twin River, which flows into Lake Michigan, aggravates the algae problem in Lake Michigan that pollutes area beaches, endangers aquatic life and contributes to the dead zone in Green Bay.

He said that large farm practices have caused many farmers to abandon the vegetative buffer strips near waterways, contour plowing and terraces, as well as the use of cover crops, that once helped to reduce phosphorus runoff .

When the East Twin River was recognized as a DNR Legacy Site in 2002, then DNR Secretary Darrell Bazzell wrote that these legacy sites would help determine “the landscape we will leave our children and grandchildren.”

“My grandson and I used to walk down to the bridge along the road and watch millions of minnows swim around,” Dorner said. “You don’t even see one minnow anymore – instead we see huge froths of what look like soap suds coming down the river.”