Buzz Sorge | Osseo, Wisconsin
I grew up exploring the Driftless ridges where I could hunt and hike all day. Then I could go a half-mile or a mile in the other direction into the lower Wisconsin River bottoms, which I took for granted growing up because I basically considered it part of our backyard. We had an 80-acre dairy farm and five boys and three girls, so my dad and mom had extra help. Mom and Dad raised eight kids on 24 milk cows, 80 acres, and a working farm.
Some of my early memories involve going down to the Wisconsin River. Dad would take a bunch of us, and we’d follow him up off the road grade along Highway T on the Wisconsin River between the bridges near Blue River. There, we’d fish from the riverbank. As I got a little older, my maternal grandfather would come out to the farm, grab one of the boys, and we’d head to the river and fish for the afternoon. I learned more than just fishing—that’s how I learned to drive a stick shift at about age 10 on the sandy river bottom roads. We’d get to the sand roads and Grandpa would say, ‘Buzzy, it’s your turn to drive.’ So, he’d let me drive to the riverbank.
We had an old seven-and-a-half horsepower Larson boat motor. On rainy days, when we really didn’t have a lot to do, Dad would fill up the car with us kids and he and our next-door neighbor would take two boatloads of us and go down to the Winneshiek backwaters (near Lansing, IA), or we’d go to Cold Springs by Lynxville and Ferryville. We always rented boats from the old boat liveries right on the bank and put the motor on one and towed the other boat. Lunch was cold bologna and crackers, and maybe a can of pop. And we’d go out and fish those Mississippi River backwaters.
As I got older, I started to see a change in the river. When I started fishing those backwaters on the Mississippi as a kid, they were gem clear. Dad would drop a beer bottle over the side and sink it, and you could see it on the bottom. By the time I became a young adult, sediment from the surrounding countryside hung in the water and made it look muddy. And those backwaters up between Prairie du Chien and Genoa that we always fished were turbid all the time. We still caught a ton of fish to eat, but the river had changed dramatically as agriculture was changing.
I didn’t understand those changes when I was a child, of course. I didn’t have a clue that what was happening on the land was driving all those changes in the water. The changes I was seeing in the Mississippi River, were driven by agriculture, especially from the Minnesota River Valley. Agricultural tillage practices were allowing rain to wash the field’s soil—sediment—into the river, making the water muddy. It’s still an incredible fishery, but the clear water phase of my childhood is gone.
That upbringing around the river led me to the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, where I completed an undergraduate degree in water science and biology. All the changes I’d seen in the river and the things I was studying came together and made sense to me.
Byron Shaw, a former UW-SP professor and true mentor of mine, was a brilliant man. He understood how groundwater, surface water, and land use come together to answer questions like, ‘Do we have pure water in the groundwater? Why are our streams the way they are, and our lakes?’ He saw the depth of my interest in finding those answers and said, ‘You have to get into graduate school.’ I did, and I earned a master’s degree from Iowa State University. Then I started my career in water resources management.
After graduate school in March of 1981, I was hired as a research limnologist to understand the impacts of discharges of sewage treatment plants on algae and plant communities in rivers and streams. It felt like the perfect place to start; it fit my interests, and I felt like I was making a difference.
We had some pretty good results. At that time, we were working on the side of the environmental problem where people thought we could regulate somebody into doing something. You can’t just create a rule that says, ‘We’ve got to turn the faucet off on these point-source discharges’ from places like sewage treatment plants. That thinking was OK for some of the foundational work in Wisconsin that drove us to things like nutrient phosphorus water quality standards for lakes and streams, but it was only the start. The real work of improving water quality must start from within communities
The technical side requires problem-solving—understanding the problem and how the systems work together. The people side is the big half where we need to understand community values and priorities. It is people that drive change, and we need to work to get them to understand how environmental improvements benefit society.
You can only begin to make a difference after a local community takes ownership of the environmental problem.
A success that I’m very proud of having been part of is the restoration of Halfmoon Lake in the city of Eau Claire. Halfmoon Lake was the center of the logging industry in Eau Claire during Wisconsin’s cutover logging era. Here, several billion feet of pine came down the Chippewa River to be processed. Halfmoon Lake was a log holding pond. The power source of the day was oxen and horses, and they didn’t haul those animals’ manure out of town—it got put on the Halfmoon Lake ice.
The real problem of Halfmoon Lake happened when nutrients stored in the lake’s sediments were being recycled into the lake. The source of the nutrients in the lake’s sediments was from the historic deposition of wood processing waste and manure from 1870 to about 1915. The nutrients being recycled from the lake’s sediments caused dense algae blooms and aquatic plant growth. The algae and plant growth made the lake virtually unswimmable and unfishable.
But we as a community restored the lake. Halfmoon Lake now is routinely crowded with many people swimming, fishing, and paddling. It has an outstanding bass bluegill fishery. It has one of the highest densities of largemouth bass in western Wisconsin. The success isn’t only measured by how clear the water is, though; it’s in seeing 30 kayakers out on a summer weekday and seeing anywhere from 20 to 40 people shore fishing. It’s a family thing.
The investments in the lake made by the city of Eau Claire and the state drove the improvements. Probably one of the best pieces of science that was accomplished on Halfmoon Lake was a sociological survey of the community of Eau Claire. We found that 80 percent of the people in town used the lake or were around the lake more than three or four times each year. When the city council saw that data, the council members understood how important the lake was to the city. Now the city continues to invest around $100,000 a year to sustain the improvements in lake water quality, recreational opportunities, and aquatic life habitats.
This financial investment will drop at some point; this will be when we get the invasive species to a point where they’re no longer problematic and we’ve sealed the bottom sediments of the lake so all the historic manure that was put out there no longer affects water quality.
Those are the kind of successes and rewards you get when you work in natural resources. You help give a resource back to a community, but first, the community has to own it. It’s similar to what I’ve seen in people trying to build a new school: some keep making runs at funding referendums before trying a community collaborative planning approach, and then it succeeds. That same strategy works when dealing with the environment. Try a community collaborative planning approach, and then it succeeds.
I’ve retired from the DNR, but I still work with groups improving lake and watershed health. A project I stayed involved with is in Trempealeau County, where there’s been a flooding problem in the Trempealeau River basin. The farmers realized that if we bring high levels of regenerative agriculture into the basin, we get many benefits, one of them being flood control. The regenerative agriculture practices the farmers implement is going to slow the runoff and help keep those streams cool for the trout.
Some progress has been made in protecting Wisconsin’s water, but there’s a long way to go. Think about it: We’re in 2022, 50 years into the legacy of the Clean Water Act. In Wisconsin, we only have two lakes we’ve taken off the impaired waters list. We have small segments of rivers and streams off that list, but none of our big river systems are off the impaired water list. What’s the value of that to Wisconsin when we are able to restore our large river systems?
The needed changes have to happen on the landscape. And it doesn’t matter what you apply it to—whether you’re building a church, a school, or another piece of public infrastructure—nothing will change if we don’t have the community behind these problems and issues.
I hope communities keep creating those changes. I’d like to see it because it would make my work in water management worthwhile. But more importantly, I’d like to see it because I want my grandchildren to have the same clear-water experiences I had growing up.
Buzz’s story was produced by Scott Schultz and is part of our series on Wisconsin’s water future. This series was funded by the ‘Beyond the Headlines’ initiative and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Beyond the Headlines (BTH) is a program of Wisconsin Humanities that brings members of the Wisconsin media and the public together to examine how we can obtain information that we need and trust in order to meet our communities’ challenges. BTH had a statewide Wisconsin Water Future project. You can learn more about it here.