More than three weeks after yet another 500-year-plus storm devastated communities throughout northern Wisconsin, many parts of Lake Superior are still stained vividly red.
As up to 15 inches of rain fell across the region, streams washed bacteria, and the south shore’s infamous red clay, into the Lake at an unprecedented rate. And, the city of Ashland was forced to divert approximately 15 million gallons of partially treated wastewater into Chequamegon Bay.
Area beaches — many now starting to reopen — were closed for more than a week, and the normally clear waters of Lake Superior registered some of the lowest clarity and dissolved oxygen measurements on record.
In all of this, it’s hard to see how Lake Superior and its surrounding communities were in any way lucky. But, this might be the best that we can hope for Lake Superior without thoughtful update to the policies and regulations that are in place to protect this national treasure, and global resource, from becoming polluted.
The Father’s Day weekend storm was the third of its kind that has dropped 10 or more inches of rain on the region in a 24-hour period in the last six years. But, Wisconsin administrative code still requires that new development projects in the region only be designed to accommodate rainfalls that total approximately 5.4 inches in a 24-hour period — roughly half of what the last three large storms have produced.
And, the results have been predictable.
Infrastructure — like culverts and bridges — throughout the region have routinely washed out because they were built based on outdated standards, and are now too small to withstand floodwater from the more intense storms the region routinely sees.
The National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA) has been updating rainfall estimates throughout the region. And, these new estimates indicate that storms are now up to 45 percent larger than previously thought.
Minnesota quickly adopted NOAA’s new estimates to design its infrastructure. But, Wisconsin has yet to fully incorporate this information into its permitting and review process for largescale development projects.
A delay in updating rainfall data in the State’s administrative code might seem trivial, but it becomes particularly important when you look at the geography of these recent storms.
The storm in July of 2016 that dropped up to 14 inches of rain outside of the town of Mellen was less than two miles from the site of the Gogebic Taconite LLC (GTac) proposal for what would have been, at the time, the largest open pit iron ore mine in the United States.
This most recent storm that dropped up to 15 inches of rain outside of the town of Drummond was approximately 17 miles southwest, and upstream, from the proposed site for the Badgerwood LLC Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) — which would have been the largest hog operation in Wisconsin, housing approximately 26,000 hogs, and applying 6.5 million gallons of manure per year to the surrounding landscape.
Neither of these projects was ever implemented, but it is worth considering what might have been had these facilities been built based on outdated engineering standards. Would the ponds to treat mine waste and store manure have held in these intense storms? Or, would these facilities have succumbed to the intense floods, just as much of the other underbuilt infrastructure throughout the region has?
Wisconsin administrative code gives the Department of Natural Resources latitude to use more current rainfall estimates to guide the design and permitting of new development projects, as it deems appropriate.
So, maybe the WDNR would have required that these projects be built to accommodate the 10-inch-plus rainfalls we have seen in recent years. Or, maybe the respective companies would have voluntarily built their infrastructure to accommodate these larger storms.
Or, maybe everything would have been built in accordance with the letter of the law.
We will never know. But, what we do know is that our current regulations do not explicitly require new, largescale development projects, like the GTac mine and Badgerwood CAFO, to be designed to accommodate the intense storms that are becoming commonplace throughout the region.
If Lake Superior — 10 percent of the world’s fresh surface water — and the surrounding communities that rely on its pristine waters are going to be protected into the future, it is going to require more than just luck.
It’s going to require that state policies be updated to ensure that new large-scale development projects be designed to accommodate the intense storms we are routinely seeing.
Professor Randy Lehr is an environmental scientist and co-director of the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin.