Waterway pollution threatens a comeback as pandemic winds down

NOW: Waterway pollution threatens a comeback as pandemic winds down

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- If you've noticed that the rivers in Milwaukee don't smell as much as they used to, you aren't alone.

Researchers at the UW-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Science said during the pandemic things that caused many of the unpleasant smells started to get better.

They said now the situation is already starting to get worse again, but there are things you can do to help.

"Paper and plastic cups, bottles, backpacks that washed off," said Dr. Russell Cuhel, a senior scientist at the school, as he listed off things they commonly find.

He said it all contributes to pollution, and in turn, smells.

Dr. Cuhel said food and other biological material from trash settles down at the bottom, and gets kicked up as boats go by.

During the pandemic, with less boats going by, and record low trash winding up in the water from rain and recreation, a layer of non-smelly sediment has developed above to help.

"[That helps to] reduce that odor escape and the material that's in there," said Dr. Cuhel.

He said while there's obviously a lot of benefit to humans in keeping the waterways here clean, it also has a lot of benefit to wildlife.

"Perch fishery has basically collapsed since the late 1990s," said Dr. Cuhel.

Dr. Cuhel said the fish, which used to be common in the area, are now rarely seen, but the most were spotted in years during the pandemic.

Dr. Carmen Aguilar said it's all because less pollution means clearer water, and more algae for fish to eat.

"So that was a plus that was observed during Covid," said Dr. Aguilar.

She said you can help the water stay clean by avoiding putting chemicals on lawns, not littering, and not putting food in the water, like dumping a half-empty soda.

It's a message Dr. Aguilar said they especially try to get out to kids, who can start the conversation in their communities.

"The kids were going 'do you understand that you're the ones?' We are the ones that are dumping all the stuff, and we don't take it back, and so everything accumulates,'" she said, recalling a conversation with kids she had in South America.

In other news related to pollution and the Great Lakes, the US Coast Guard and the Canadian Coast Guard renewed their five-year agreement Monday to work together to try and diminish pollution across the lakes they say are critical for those of us who live on their shores.

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