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Builders blame farms for dirty river

Dustin Block
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Bill Berndt’s joke that home construction on farmland will reduce pollution in the lower St. Croix River is grounded in reality.

The government affairs director for the St. Croix Valley Home Builders Association said fertilizer on farm fields is the primary source of pollution washing into the river, which runs near Prescott along Wisconsin’s border with Minnesota.

Berndt reasons that replacing those fields with houses is one way to stop pollutants from reaching the water.

“Converting row crops to homes would result in a net reduction in phosphorous discharge,” he said. “That’s not saying farmland is a negative, it’s just the reality.”

Berndt said he is not proposing such a conversion. Rather, he said, environmentalists should not blame builders for growing concerns about the lower St. Croix’s health.

“The assertion that growth and development is the reason the river has challenges is an overstatement,” he said.

But the national organization, American Rivers, cited development as a reason for naming the lower St. Croix one of the 10 most endangered rivers in the U.S. this month. The organization said poor enforcement of zoning laws threatens the river.

Local governments let homeowners along the river violate zoning regulations and build additions that harm the river’s scenic qualities, said Dan McGuiness, interim executive director of the St. Croix River Association.

“There’s a lack of oversight,” he said.

Don’t tell that to Nancy Carlson.

She and her husband Andy Murphy were fined $5,000 for rebuilding a deck on the back of their house in the town of Troy along the lower St. Croix. The couple rebuilt the deck without the needed permits and spent another $3,000 over the past six months getting approvals.

“It’s been kind of a nightmare,” Carlson said. “I’ve likened it on several occasions to a public flogging.”

Troy Chairman Ray Knapp said environmentalists accuse the wrong suspects of harming the river. Boaters, runoff from farms and general development in the river basin all reduce the river’s quality. He called it “disheartening” to have the town, which spends several hours a week monitoring homes along the lower St. Croix, lumped in with larger threats to the river.

“If you start chasing after the people who are doing a good job, they lose enthusiasm,” Knapp said.

But McGuiness said the pressure is needed to convince local governments to fight homeowners when they don’t get permits or try to build additions that encroach on the river.

Local governments also need to control development in the river basin, he said. St. Croix County is one of the fastest growing counties in Wisconsin and is increasing pollution in the river, he said.

The St. Croix River Association wants Minnesota and Wisconsin’s legislatures to spend more money enforcing state regulations and local governments to regulate development to protect the river.

Berndt said limiting new construction won’t reduce pollution from farms. But poorly considered limits on development will hurt the local economy.

“We don’t want to be singled out,” he said. “It’s crazy to say zoning decisions have caused the increases (in river pollution).”

The homebuilders association is working with the community to reduce phosphorous pollution, Berndt said.

Meaningful efforts will span the entire St. Croix river valley, an area covering hundreds of thousands of acres over 100 square miles, he said.

Berndt said cleaning up the river should start with controlling pollution from farm fields.

“Anyone in favor of regulating homes,” he said, “should be cognizant of who’s producing the most pollution.”

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