Flame-Fanning Following Wausau Sewage Event Stinks

Feb 22, 2018 | Agriculture, DNR | 1 comment

Recently, a blockage in the city of Wausau’s sanitary sewer lines resulted in the discharge of an estimated 3.7 million gallons of untreated sewage into the Wisconsin River, via a safety overflow bypass—a device designed for just such an event. The discharge began on January 19 and occurred until it was reported to city officials on January 23, at which point they were faced with a tough decision—back raw sewage up into residents’ homes, and endanger public health in the process, or continue to discharge the sewage to the Wisconsin River until the blockage was fixed. The city chose the latter, citing “no feasible alternatives” in a press release about the incident.

Wisconsin River at Pelican River
The confluence of the clean Pelican River flowing (from the upper-right of the image) into the polluted Wisconsin River, milky white with foam from pollution (flowing from the right side of the photo). The “bad old days” of the Wisconsin River—and the success story of how diverse and nontraditional partners came together to solve a complex problem.

As has so often occurred previously, the river acted as a receptacle for a massive pollution event, diluting the impact of the discharge, but still bearing the brunt of it.

The Wisconsin DNR has issued Wausau a “Notice of Noncompliance,” and has required the city to take corrective action to ensure this situation isn’t repeated in the future. It is unclear at this point, however, whether or not DNR will levy a fine against the city for a permit violation. Whether or not the city was in violation of their permit, as a follow-up to this unfortunate event, we’d like to see a transparent accounting of what happened and why, a requirement that the city mitigate the damages of the discharge event, and a plan identifying what steps will be taken in the future avoid incidents like this.

Recent Responses

Some vocal op-eds sprung up about a week after the event occurred (at which time groups like ours were trying to better understand what happened), attempting to make a case against the media and conservation groups for not covering adequately, and not being up in arms about the event. If a farm did such a thing, they suggested, farmers would be vilified. It’s questionable whether the op-eds had the desired effect of pitting farmers against the media or conservation groups, but we’re compelled to wonder why that’s the apparent objective.

Though it’s in vogue these days to play Americans against each other, a more constructive treatment of the Wausau event would have addressed the complexity of the situation Wausau faced, rather than declaring it an outrage before all the facts were known. It would have placed the event in the context of a long history of factories and cities making the Wisconsin River a cesspool, devoid of life in some areas, while acknowledging that the recent history has been one where such events are uncommon, due to an effective permitting system that is ultimately a success story. It would have addressed the complexity of the issue that some while some farms are permitted (and highly regulated), and others still aren’t, they aren’t nearly subject to the same level of scrutiny that a permitted operation is. Though spills are quantifiable, the discharges of nutrients from unpermitted farms represents an area where improvements are still needed.

Working to Find Solutions

We see farmers earnestly making improvements in their conservation efforts, and beginning honest dialogues about the issue, and we commend them for it. We will be working more intentionally in the coming months with these sorts of farmers and their allies, who are more interested in working together to find solutions to complicated problems, rather than trying to fan flames of division.


We welcome your comments or questions on this topic. Please contact Matt Krueger, River Restoration Director by email at [email protected] or by phone at 608-257-2424 x125.