Can our water supply stage a comeback like the eagle?

With the Central Sands area firmly in the grasp of winter, we have been seeing the usual congregation of wildlife around water and food sources. But one species we have been blessed to see is our national bird, the bald eagle. On my commute to work the past several days, I have been thrilled to see three immature eagles feeding on a deer carcass right along the road. Anyone traveling near the open waters of the Wisconsin River is likely to spot some of these birds this time of year.

We have not always been so fortunate. People my age can remember being young and maybe being lucky enough to see one eagle up north. There just weren’t many around. In fact, in the early 1960s, it was estimated there were only 487 nesting pairs of bald eagles left in the U.S. The birds had lost the ability to hatch their young due to the pesticide called DDT affecting the eggs.

I see a parallel to the eagles’ plight 50 years ago to the threats we face with our water supply this very moment in Wisconsin.

I have lived in the Central Sands area for 25 years and have been blessed to enjoy the many lakes and recreational streams in the area. Over the years I have watched many of them shrink in size, and some actually dry up. During the same period I have seen the number of irrigation systems and high-capacity wells grow tremendously.

Nowadays, when I excitedly point out bald eagles to my young daughter, she loves seeing them, but just can’t appreciate how special it is, because they have always been there for her generation. I have to explain the way it was, and how we must never take nature for granted, as it is a fragile thing.

Unfortunately, she also is used to seeing low lakes, and irrigation pivots are just part of the landscape. To her, this is normal. Only by pointing to old tree lines and exposed boat landings around lakes am I able to show her how things used to be.

Following World War II, DDT was heralded as a new pesticide to kill mosquitos and other insects. Liberal use for agricultural needs resulted in DDT entering the food chain where it was passed along until it ultimately ended up in the Eagles. It took a lot of time and pressure to bring the issue to people’s attention. The book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson did much to bring awareness to the issue in 1962, although she was roundly criticized by many for writing it.

She was questioning the use of one of agriculture’s most valuable tools, and it was not well received. Even with the Secretary of the Interior putting the eagle under the protection of the Endangered Species Preservation Act in 1966, it was not until 1972 that the EPA finally banned the use of DDT.

Thus began the long road back for the bald eagle. As the DDT was flushed from the ecosystem, these birds again began to successfully reproduce, and they returned from the brink. Today it is estimated there are 9,789 nesting pairs in the lower 48 States.

Like the use of DDT, the use of irrigation is an important tool for agriculture. The proliferation of wells in the Central Sands area has to be seen to be believed. The disappearance of our lakes is eerily similar to the plight of the eagle. And like the time of Silent Spring, there are studies and groups trying to raise awareness around the issue of groundwater. And again like DDT, not everyone is happy about the news, or willing to acknowledge that there needs to be a change. I wonder how long it will take for people to come to grips with the need for a better solution. How bad does it need to get?

Unlike the government stepping in to help save the eagle, our current state government seems willing to ignore science and continue to permit an unlimited number of wells. Only through private legal action taken by conservation groups – groups such as Friends of the Central Sands, Family Farm Defenders and others — does there seem to be any effort to slow the tide.

Can we start the road to recovery like the eagle? For our children and grandchildren, we must try.