Watershed word of mouth

Resident, students: Water quality perception worse than reality

June 27, 2017

A fisherman tries his luck on Lake Menomin.

Editor’s note: This story about the Red Cedar River watershed was written by two UW-Stout professional communication and emerging media students taught by Associate Professor Kate Edenborg.

By Molly Holper and Emily Huehns

Menomonie, Wis. — With the the muddied reputation of the lakes and rivers in the Menomonie area, some residents do not dare step foot in the water.

“Coming to UW-Stout, everyone was saying don’t go in the water; you’ll get sick because the algae is so terrible,” said Courtney Passon, a senior at University of Wisconsin-Stout. “I never had the opportunity to go on the lake so I never questioned it.”

Other residents, however, enjoy regular recreational activities despite the blue-green algae blooms that can turn the waters green and smelly in the summertime.

“We fish, stand-up paddleboard, canoe, kayak, tube behind our boat, wakeboard, surf, swim and ice fish,” said John Spartz, a UW-Stout assistant professor and homeowner on the Red Cedar River. “We do eat the fish too.”

John Spartz and his family boating on Lake Menomin.Spartz and his family aren’t the only ones who spend their time out on the lake.

“My neighbor is 83 years old who has been fishing in Lake Menomin his whole life and has been eating the fish out of Lake Menomin and the Red Cedar,” Spartz said. “He’s still walking around and still goes fishing four days a week.”

The UW-Stout water ski team practices on Lake Menomin. Team member Sarah Spitzmueller of Lino Lakes, Minn., was not aware of the notion of the unclean water when she joined the team.

“Even if I did know the water was unclean, I still would have joined the team,” Spitzmueller said. “The lake I ski on at home is just about the same.”

The common idea that the water is unclean is talked about frequently around campus.

“I did go on the lake with the water ski team and there was some algae,” Passon said. “I didn’t get sick. I don’t think it’s as bad as people think it is.”

“I have never had a problem while skiing on the lake,” Spitzmueller said. “Everyone thinks it’s nasty that we ski in the lake and that it isn’t safe, but the whole team doesn’t care. We just want to ski.”

The perception that the lake is unsafe to use for recreation has been around for more than 25 years, but why did it start?

“When you stand on shore where the people who do not have boat access have access, it’s green and stinks,” Spartz said. “It makes all kinds of sense. If (you) didn’t have a boat, you can’t just walk out on the beach on Wakanda Park in August and go swimming. It’s a lack of access that creates that.”

With the condition of the water, UW-Stout students avoid participating in water activities. With few such activities offered on campus, students’ opinions stay the same.

“I can imagine as a university, if we had a sailing class or we had a kayaking class, through the rec center or something,” Spartz said. “If we had those types of things that gave people that access, they would see there’s certainly lots of stuff you can do on the lake.”

Negative dialogue about the water keeps Lake Menomin and nearby Tainter Lake, connected by the Red Cedar River, from being used to their full potential.

“I think we need to change the narrative of the lake,” Spartz said. “There are awesome things to do outside around the water that students don’t take advantage of because they think algae is bad. There are ways to get around that. I think it could really enhance the student experience here on campus.”

The Tainter Menomin Lake Improvement Association has more information. The group recently hosted the sixth annual Red Cedar Watershed Conference at UW-Stout to discuss the environment and the region’s water quality.

Also, learn more at the UW-Stout LAKES research experience for undergraduates.

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Photos

Top: A fisherman tries his luck on Lake Menomin.

Bottom: John Spartz and his family live on the Red Cedar River and regularly use the river and Lake Menomin, despite water quality issues related to blue-green algae.