The north branch of Fish Creek runs through a thickly wooded mixed forest of hardwoods and evergreens about 14 miles west of Ashland.
It is a cold, and usually clear Class I trout stream. But when torrential rains strike, as they have three times in the past seven years, the normally placid creek becomes a raging torrent and turns into the largest source of excess sediment and phosphorus feeding into Chequamegon Bay.
But if efforts being undertaken by Northland College's Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation are successful, that destructive erosion may someday be controlled or even halted.
That would be quite an accomplishment. On Father's Day of 2018, the storms were so violent that a bridge culvert on Highway 2 less than a mile upstream failed, sending a tidal wave of water through the narrow valley, sluicing an estimated 45,000 tons of sediment into the bay and creating a plume of mud that could be seen from space.
"Behind us lies ground zero for sediment and phosphorus contributions into the bay," said Matt Hudson, associate director of the Burke Center.
Hudson said the failure of the bridge and the erosion caused by the Father's Day Flood were devastating for the Bay Area.
"The failure of this major economic artery disrupted the flow of people and goods for months after the storm and serves as another example of human-built infrastructure all across the country, not just in this region, that is not built to withstand the changes to our climate that we are now experiencing," he said.
Although the highway damage has been repaired, Hudson said havoc caused by the flood downstream has not received much attention, though the damaged riverbank continues to lose an estimated 4,000 tons of sediment a year.
He said the mud and sand washing into the bay affect both the natural environment and the human population of Chequamegon Bay, destroying fish habitat, increasing the cost of drinking water treatment for Ashland and damaging tourism and recreational use of the lake. Sediment also contributes to bluegreen algae blooms, Hudson said.
"Lake Superior is the coldest and cleanest of the Great Lakes and a place where we never expected to see this kind of thing happen," he said.
Hudson spoke Monday at the site of a $320,000 project funded by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative that offers the beginning of a solution to the sediment problem. A series of oak timber cribs, built and tied together with steel cables at the foot of the 80-foot-tall bluff, will keep the creek from further eroding along 600 feet of shoreline. Once the cribs are in place, the streambed will be routed away from the foot of the bluff, preventing future erosion.
Work at the site and at a smaller bluff downstream will prevent 5,600 tons of sediment from entering the creek and ultimately Chequamegon Bay every year, Hudson said.
"This project will build resilience to our natural systems as a buffer against our changing climate," he said.
Vice Chairman of the Great lakes Commission Todd Ames said nearly $4 billion has been devoted to Great Lakes restoration projects, with more than $400 million devoted to projects in Wisconsin.
"There has been broad bipartisan support for significant conservation projects, funding over 5,000 projects, including this one," he said. "We have been able to clean up toxic hot spots, restore wetlands, prevented the spread of invasive species, and restored habitats and reduced runoff at spots just like this one."
He said plans for Fish Creek called for sediment reductions of 16,000 tons a year.
"Stabilization of this bluff is projected to achieve 28% of that goal," he said.
The key to future sediment-reduction is working with landowners, Hudson said. That wasn't an issue at the current worksite because the land is publicly owned. Work on private land will require cooperation of landowners who have to be convinced of the value of the effort to them.
"And then there are a number of landowners who just don't trust the government," he said. He said given the bipartisan willingness to fund the restoration work on the part of Congress, funding for future projects would likely remain available.
"Cooperation with private landowners is the key," he said.
Burke Center Director Peter Annin said funds have been available for Fish Creek because climate change is a driving force for local problems.
"We have been a hotspot for these big storm events. We are seeing some of the most severe climate-related storm events anywhere on the Great Lakes watershed," he said. "As long as these big events keep happening, and the need is there for this kind of restoration work, we are cautiously optimistic that we will be able to continue to bring in the funding for this kind of work."
Hudson said the project demonstrates that halting erosion is possible, despite the remoteness of some of the sites. He reiterated that private landowner cooperation was vital to future project success.
"We are going to need more of that moving forward to see the goals we have set happen," he said.
The age of the electric car has arrived in Bayfield County.
With advances in battery and powertrain technology, the range and performance of all-electric vehicles has expanded to over 400 miles in the top-rated model, with acceleration that rivals gasoline engine models.
The range of even the most modest electric cars allow owners to take them on extended drives, with a very big caveat: They need a high-speed charging station somewhere along the trip.
"I get calls all the time from people in Minneapolis who want to drive to Bayfield County, and they ask if we have a high-speed charging station," said Washburn Mayor and Bayfield County Tourism and Recreation Director Mary Motiff.
In the past, Motiff has had to tell such callers with chagrin that there weren't any in the county.
But that is no longer the case. Motiff was among a contingent of local government and Xcel Energy officials who gathered Tuesday at the parking lot next to the Bayfield County Administration Building to inaugurate the county's first public high-speed charging station. The event took place during National Drive Electric Week, a nationwide event to raise awareness of the benefits of all-electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles.
The new charger, a partnership between Bay Area Rural Transit and Xcel Energy, features a Level 3 fast charger that can charge a newer model electric vehicle from nearly empty to 80% capacity in as little as 30 minutes.
That's far faster rate than the Level 2 facilities that are used in many public facilities or the level 1 charging systems that are used on home chargers for overnight charging. The high-speed charger was installed to serve new BART all-electric busses slated for service later this year.
"It's here so that if the Blue Goose needs an additional charge while it is over here for the day, they can pull in and hook into it and get enough charge to get back home," BART Director Pat Daoust said, referring to the Blue Goose bus that serves the Washburn area.
The charger is the first of its kind in Bayfield County and the first that is open to the public. It might seem a minor event, but it opens a world of possibilities in the peninsula.
"There is no longer any question that electric vehicles are delivering on increasingly economic transportation," said Xcel Energy President for Wisconsin and Michigan Mark Stoering. "You are able to charge your vehicle here for less than the equivalent of $1 a gallon, and sometimes considerably less than that."
He said that electric cars offer other advantages over internal-combustion engines such as fewer moving parts, no oil changes and environmental benefits that come from not burning gasoline.
He said Xcel's goal of being completely carbon-free by 2050 is on track and the company's attention has turned to the transportation sector, committing to provide electric charging services to 1.5 million electric vehicles by 2030.
"It is an ambitious goal, but one that is in sight with current technology," he said.
Stoering said demand for charging stations is expected to explode as production of electric vehicles takes off. Ford Motor Co. this week announced it will build two new facilities to produce electric cars in Tennessee and Kentucky and plans to hire 11,000 new workers and spend $11 billion on the project.
Larry Loverude, manager of Xcel's commercial electric vehicle projects, said Xcel's goal of being completely carbon-free by 2050 is on track and the company's attention has turned to the transportation sector, where it intends to create infrastructure to support up to 1.5 million electric vehicles, about 30 times more than are on the road today.
"He had the end goal in sight from day one," Loverude said.
Daoust said that while the charger is primarily in place to juice the Blue Goose, it will also serve an important role in encouraging more private electric vehicles and other charging stations in the Bay Area.
Stoering said supporting the transition to electric vehicles was part of Xcel's overall commitment to producing cleaner energy.
"It's not only cleaning up our system in the production of electricity, reducing carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions, but it's also cleaning up the transportation sector," he said. "It is an opportunity for us to meet a larger societal goal to provide clean air not only through our own operations but downstream in electric vehicle operation."
Motiff said she and local businesses are looking forward to the station drawing more tourists in their electric cars.
"I am super excited to be able to promote the fact that we have a Level 3 charging station in Bayfield County," she said. "This will be great, to be able to promote the area to people who have electric vehicles who haven't been able to travel here. I am hoping this is the beginning of a beautiful partnership and that we get more of them installed."
Ashland City Council members approved a plan by a 9-1 vote Tuesday to repurpose the Ashland Motel into a 24-unit emergency residential facility, and now the real work begins for Northwest Wisconsin Community Services Agency CEO Millie Rounsville.
Rounsville said Wednesday that the agency's offer to purchase the Ashland Motel on the city's west side from the current owner, SAI, Inc., is good until Oct. 14, and the next step for the project is to complete the sale of the property.
"We will close on the property. We will then begin recruiting for staff and volunteers, and once I can actually physically acquire the property then we can do things like updating the electric service, start to get accessibility issues completed so we can accommodate people with physical disabilities," she said. "We need to move as quickly as possible to get people in before it gets cold."
At Tuesday's city council session, Washburn Attorney Linda Coleman warned the council that the proposed conditional use permit violated both state law and the city's own comprehensive plan.
On Wednesday, Coleman, who represented a number of residents at the meeting, said her clients have not yet decided whether to pursue legal action to halt the project, but she believes there are grounds to take the issue to court.
"State law requires that to approve a conditional use permit, the city council must find that there is substantial evidence that the applicant has met the terms that are outlined in the city zoning ordinance," she said.
Coleman said the council failed to meet that burden in at least three of the six required provisions.
"The most clearly relevant is compatibility with existing uses within 200 feet of the proposed use and 500 feet on either direction down the same street, in this case the highway," she said.
Coleman said the uses on the highway were commercial in nature, and the shelter doesn't fall into that category.
She said the shelter would also violate the comprehensive plan because it would be in an area that is waterfront and also in the gateway – the transition into the city. Coleman said the shelter does not match the uses called for by the plan, and should have been placed in an area that allows congregate housing like apartment buildings.
"I believe and my clients agree that what has happened is that the city council wants an emergency housing shelter and that might be a fine goal, and we take no issue with that goal. But because the proposal was to put it here, the council has decided that 'here it shall go,' largely disregarding the comprehensive plan," she said "So what is the purpose of the comprehensive plan if we are actually just going to develop things on a piecemeal basis and decide things from project to project?"
Rounsville disagrees, saying the issues were carefully considered before the decision was made.
"I believe the Ashland City Council did its due diligence. In terms of the arguments that were raised, they did address those items. It is a permitted activity in that location. And if you tie it to the needs of the community, it was very clear in what everyone who was speaking said last night, we have a need and it is an unmet need," she said. "Ashland needs a shelter and has needed one for at least a decade."
That was the opinion of 20 of the 28 resident comments taken at the hearing Tuesday from people who favored the shelter.
"This is not a 'not in my backyard' issue," said Katherine Morrisseau. "You can't criminalize homelessness. These are real people who need housing."
Morrisseau said homeless people have been staying at the Ashland Motel for years, reliant on housing vouchers.
Brett Beeksma opposed the project, saying there had been no discussion of security issues for residents who would live near the shelter.
"What will happen when people get turned away? The safety of the neighborhood needs to be spoken for," he said.
Ashland real estate agent Tony Jennings said the homeless shelter is "a hot topic" that likely would draw objections no matter where it was proposed.
Sue Erickson said she opposed the permit because she said the process was rushed and that information about the project "changed from meeting to meeting." She also said the proposed location of the project went against the comprehensive plan.
Following the vote, Rounsville said the vote produced "a historic day for Ashland," and that it would be noted in the history of her agency.
"This is a dream we have had as an agency for 20 years, along with some of our partners," she said.
More subdued was Coleman, who said she would confer with her clients in the near future to determine what course they would take following the vote.