Cleaning and Protecting Wisconsin’s Waters

Preventing water pollution 
from roads and road-building

What is polluted runoff?

One of the largest sources of pollution comes from rainwater or snowmelt that picks up contaminants from the land and deposits them in water bodies.  This type of pollution is called polluted runoff, or nonpoint source pollution.

How does polluted runoff affect Wisconsin’s waters?

According to the DNR, urban and rural polluted runoff is the leading cause of water quality problems in Wisconsin, degrading or threatening an estimated 40 percent of the streams, 90 percent of the inland lakes, many of the Great Lakes harbors and coastal waters, many wetland areas and substantial groundwater resources in Wisconsin.

Polluted runoff is the number one threat to water quality in the state of Wisconsin. Polluted runoff can result in fish kills and destroyed fish habitat; it can contaminate drinking water; and it can ruin our most valuable natural recreational resources.

Pollution from roads and road-building activities

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports “roads, highways, and bridges are a source of significant contributions of pollutants to our nation's waters.  Contaminants from vehicles and activities associated with road and highway construction and maintenance are washed from roads and roadsides when it rains or snow melts.  A large amount of this runoff pollution is carried directly to water bodies.”

Current road building practices contribute pollutants such as heavy metals, oils, and other toxic substances.  When land is cleared or disturbed to build a road, soil, debris, and spilled construction materials can be carried with runoff water to lakes, rivers, and bays.

Once roads are built, the pollution continues in the form of vehicle and human trash such as gas, anti-freeze, oil, metals from tire wear, cigarette butts, pet waste, debris, and litter.  When it rains or when snow melts, all of this pollution is swept directly into the nearest waterways—unless there are “filters” in place to catch it.


How would the DNR's proposed runoff rules prevent water pollution from roads and road building activities?

The proposed rule would require road builders to incorporate practices to prevent chemicals, sediment, and cement from entering the water.  After two years, the newly constructed roads would also be required to include on-going pollution control measures such as vegetative buffers. Buffers are strips of vegetated land (trees, shrubs, and grasses) that allow water to filter down into the land rather than running over the land and into water bodies.

Water that is filtered and stored underground is cleaner than water that is quickly flushed over the land, picking up pollutants before it is immediately dumped into rivers, lakes, or streams.

The goals of the construction and post-construction requirements are to minimize the amount of pollutants in the runoff and to minimize the amount of water that is conveyed directly to water bodies.

What would the rules require?

Pollution control practices during the construction phase would include minimizing the tracking of soils, properly storing chemicals, and cleaning up sediment.  New roads would be required to curb runoff by creating buffer strips and other pollution control measures.

Wisconsin has112,362 miles of state highways, roads, and streets.  There are 40,000 plus miles of rivers and streams and 15,000 lakes.

What Can You Do To Help?

Please write a letter to the Natural Resources Board encouraging them to adopt the proposed pollution control rules for road building.  The letter should go to:
Natural Resources Board
Trygve Solberg, Chair
P.O. Box 7921
Madison, WI  53707
Resources for more information:
For more information, please contact Steph Adams, Clean Water Coalition coordinator.  Phone: 608-441-4811  Email:
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