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Saturday, December 27, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 45.0° F  Light Rain Fog/Mist
The Daily
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Could Rhythm & Booms go bust?
This year's fireworks show may be the last
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Credit:Christopher Klinge

On Wednesday, July 3, couples, families and friends will again gather at Warner Park to watch Madison's annual fireworks show, Rhythm & Booms. It's an Independence Day tradition as American as apple pie and baseball -- except that many of the fireworks are made in China, but we won't go there.

This year, however, a neighborhood group working to protect wildlife in the park would like visitors to think about more than whether they remembered the bug spray. Wild Warner wants them to think about the sandhill cranes nesting in the marsh and the baby bats with their sensitive ears. And about how much chemical-laden debris falls from the fireworks show into the park's lagoon and tall grasses.

Rhythm & Booms, once billed as the largest fireworks display in the Midwest, will be scaled back this year. Per its agreement with the city, there will be no carnival, music stages or beer sales. These changes were made to reduce the impact on the surrounding neighborhood and minimize city costs for security. For the same reasons, the event is being held for the first time on a weekday instead of the Saturday before the July 4 holiday.

But it could be the last Rhythm & Booms at Warner Park. After 20 years, the future of the choreographed fireworks show is very much up in the air.

Terry Kelly, who founded the event and has produced the show since 1993, handed over the reins this year to Madison Festivals Inc., which also puts on the Madison Marathon and Taste of Madison. Rita Kelliher, president of Madison Festivals, says the group's board is evaluating whether to continue the event and will decide on a direction at its July 10 meeting. Kelliher says her group is looking for ways to "preserve the core" of Rhythm & Booms while also making it safe and environmentally friendly.

Kelly says the fireworks show "made Madison one of the few cities on the map with a show of this kind." And, he adds, "it's always been free." That was a key ingredient for Kelly, who says he's gotten a lot of joy over the years from bringing "family fun" to all, regardless of ability to pay. The future of the event, he says, depends on continued community support in the form of enthusiasm, publicity and funding.

But Jim Carrier, founding member of Wild Warner, is ready to see Rhythm & Booms end. "The discussion around this has been that the fireworks on the Fourth of July are a given, but do they have to be? Do we have to have fireworks? Do we have to have them here?"

Fireworks' fallout

Wild Warner has documented 135 bird species in the park and fears park habitat continues to be degraded by the annual fireworks show. In addition to the event-day disruptions, the group is also concerned about the fireworks' fallout, including contamination from chemicals used in the explosives. The group has pushed for moving the show out of the park, or at least out of the wetlands. It's also pushed for steps to mitigate the pollution.

Madison likes to tout its green cred, so it's no surprise that everyone from city staff to the event organizers themselves profess a desire to make Rhythm & Booms better for the environment. But finding consensus on how to do that is proving difficult.

For starters, there is disagreement over just what 20 years of shooting fireworks over the Warner Park lagoon has done to the wetland.

The city's Committee on the Environment, with the help of city staff, conducted a baseline study last year to try to come up with some data. It tested the water, sediments and vegetation before and after last year's Rhythm & Booms. The results showed a spike in perchlorate in both the water and vegetation after the show. Perchlorate is a chemical used as a propellant in rocket fuel and fireworks. It is known to interfere with thyroid function, especially in vulnerable populations including pregnant women and infants. The Environmental Protection Agency is currently developing drinking-water regulations for the chemical.

But the perchlorate levels found in the water were lower than what has been found elsewhere to cause problems in fish, says Brynn Bemis, city hydrogeologist and author of the water portion of the study.

Fireworks also contain a variety of heavy-metal salts, which produce the different colors. Unlike perchlorate, these do not break down.

"The problem with heavy metals is they don't go away, you can't destroy them," says Jim Bennett, a member of the environment committee and author of the vegetation section of the study.

Bennett found higher levels of perchlorate, barium, strontium and magnesium -- all commonly found in fireworks -- in leaves tested after Rhythm & Booms compared with samples taken beforehand. Some of the concentrations approached toxicity levels for the plants.

The study was not able to assess how these chemicals might affect the food chain if animals eat the leaves. Tim Nelson, chair of Wild Warner, notes that people from the surrounding neighborhoods also forage in the park for morels and berries.

As for heavy metals in the water, Bemis tested surface water and lagoon sediments, but says there is no way of knowing whether the metals came from the fireworks or from what she considers the lagoon's bigger problem -- storm water runoff. The levels were similar to those in other water bodies in the city receiving large amounts of storm water, she says.

Bennett emphasizes the study was a pilot and would need to be replicated. He requested an amendment, approved in Rhythm & Booms' final contract, requiring a post-event report from the organizer. This report will detail which chemicals were used in the fireworks, how many pounds of material were exploded and what the weather conditions were at the launch. This information would allow for more precise research into the environmental effects, although there are currently no plans for further study.

Kelliher said at an April 16 Common Council meeting that Madison Festivals Inc. could produce such a report, but noted that some of the formulas used by the fireworks companies may be proprietary. That doesn't impress Bennett.

"Just from a public health standpoint, someone's got to know what's in those things because they're exploding them over all these people," he says.

Bags of debris

Former school board member Lucy Mathiak is a frequent visitor to Warner's dog park. When she showed up to testify at the March Committee on the Environment meeting, she brought bags full of debris she had picked up after the 2012 Rhythm & Booms show.

"I was still picking up crap in December: fuses, pieces of shells and so forth," she told the committee, according to a transcript of the meeting posted by Wild Warner Park. "And that really bothers me because it's an area where we have herons, sandhill cranes, a number of frogs and all sorts of things that really aren't meant to be cohabiting with fireworks debris, including the chemical residues. They don't just go away."

Debris includes cardboard and wire, along with unignited materials from the more than 10,000 shells shot off during the show.

"It's a spectacular show, but once you've seen the outcome, the leftovers, the fallout, you can't feel very good about it anymore," says Carrier of Wild Warner.

Kelly says he switched early on from plastic to cardboard shells even though they cost more, out of concern for the environment. The cardboard may be unsightly, he says, but it's biodegradable.

Park users have complained for years about the debris. This year event organizers are under more scrutiny as the Common Council amended the contract with Rhythm & Booms to require that all visible debris be removed from the park.

This is not easily accomplished in a wetland, though. Aside from the water that quickly envelops the debris, the large island and marsh are full of tall grasses, and unignited materials can be as small as a dime.

Warner's wild side

Aside from Rhythm & Booms, most people know Warner Park for its dog park, ball fields and the Duck Pond, home of the Madison Mallards. Beyond this heavily groomed landscape, about half of the park's acreage remains in a more natural state, with woods, prairie, a large lagoon and two islands. The state Department of Natural Resources owns a small corner of this wetland section.

On a spring afternoon walk with Jim Carrier, we see wildlife more often associated with rural areas than with a city. Sandhill cranes forage and call to each other near the water, and on the edge of the park a red fox mother suns herself while her five fluffy pups romp nearby.

Tim Nelson, chair of Wild Warner, has seen painted and snapping turtles in the park, and just recently a Blanding's turtle, which is a threatened species in Wisconsin. A kid exploring in the park found the turtle and showed it to Nelson before releasing it.

For the members of Wild Warner, these encounters hold tremendous value for the connection they offer to the natural world. The organization leads bird walks through the park and has worked with other conservation groups to put up bird and bat houses. Trish O'Kane, a Ph.D. candidate in the UW's Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, leads a nature club that brings students from Sherman Middle School into the park each week during the spring and fall. The 30 or more students explore wildlife accompanied by UW undergraduate mentors.

To some, the proliferation of species in the park despite 20 years of Rhythm & Booms is evidence that the show is doing no significant harm. Kelly says if anything he's seen more animals in the park in recent years. "There is no evidence indicating harm to wildlife," he says.

Carrier disagrees. Geese are molting at the time of the show and, unable to fly, try to run out of the park when they hear the explosions. They're often hit by cars, he says. The marshy island directly in the path of the fireworks, where Carrier has seen deer and nesting sandhill cranes, has caught on fire several years.

And those fox pups? If they react to fireworks anything like dogs, it's a stressful time.

"If you live on the north side you see the effect on your animals," says Carrier. "People take their dogs out of town or give them drugs. We take ours down in the basement. They hate it."

Years ago a fireworks show was moved from Vilas Park out of concern for the stress it caused the zoo's residents. To Carrier, the wild animals in the park deserve the same consideration.

"We are trying to speak for the wildlife and say this is an area that ought to be maintained and improved. Why should it be allowed to deteriorate?"

Going green

One recommendation that kept coming up during debate this spring over the contract for Rhythm & Booms was to switch to using low- or no-perchlorate fireworks. This change would address the biggest chemical spikes identified in the environment committee's study and allay concerns about possible groundwater contamination. Disney World, where fireworks are shot off daily, has switched to perchlorate-free pyrotechnics. The Board of Estimates, Parks Commission, Committee on the Environment and, ultimately, the Common Council all voted to recommend, although not require, the use of no-perchlorate fireworks.

But, as Kelliher has noted, the perchlorate-free explosives are not currently "manufactured by anyone for outdoor shows," but are instead designed for smaller, indoor displays.

If the perchlorate-free fireworks were available, Kelliher says, Madison Festivals Inc. would use them, despite the higher price tag.

Finding a different location is also an option, but no easy task. It must be safe for spectators and surrounding properties; be able to be easily cleaned up; and produce minimal contamination.

Shooting the fireworks over Lake Mendota would keep people and property safe and may allow the perchlorate to dissipate more quickly, but it would shower litter on a lake the city has been trying to clean up.

"It's not going to be clear-cut from an environmental perspective what the answer is," says Bemis.

The Committee on the Environment's solution was to amend the Rhythm & Booms contract to move the launch site from the island in Warner Park to the parking lot. This would reduce stress on park wildlife and keep debris visible until it was thoroughly cleaned up. The idea was nixed, however, after Madison Fire Chief Steven Davis said the fallout could not be restricted to the parking lot and would therefore threaten surrounding buildings.

The launch island has a berm across it, which was added specifically to protect Rhythm & Booms spectators. The rockets are buried in sand behind the berm, angled away from the people. That same sand, however, has provided nesting spots for painted turtles, notes O'Kane.

The Committee on the Environment briefly discussed moving Rhythm & Booms out of Warner Park entirely but did not come up with an alternative location.

Ald. Larry Palm, whose district includes Warner Park, would like to see the show stay, although he is open to moving the launch site.

"There's a lot of community pride in the north side having a patriotic display," he says.

Palm says only a vocal minority of his constituents want the fireworks booted from the park or ended entirely.

"Here's an instance where I think a majority of the residents are in favor of fireworks and mostly in favor of keeping fireworks at Warner Park," he says.

Ald. Anita Weier, whose north-side district borders the park, has said the comments she's received from constituents have been split on the issue. The two alders are hosting a public meeting July 18 at the Warner Park Community Center to get feedback on this year's show and the future of the event.

A community effort

For years people have watched Rhythm & Booms not just from Warner Park, but from Tenney Park, the Memorial Union Terrace, and all around Lake Mendota, even from boats on the lakes. And for years, the event has drawn not just Madison residents but tens of thousands of visitors from around the region.

Kelly remains "very proud of the huge community effort" that goes into the annual event, including the hundreds of volunteers and thousands of dollars it produces for area charities.

Though no longer handling the logistics for this year's show, Kelly still produced the music and the display. He says his goal is to hand off his duties successfully.

Going forward, he says, "I'm happy to be as involved as they want me to be involved."

But if Wild Warner has its way, there won't be another Rhythm & Booms -- at least not one launched over Warner's wetlands.

Paul Noeldner, a member of the group, explained why in testimony to the environment committee.

Earlier this year in the predawn over the park's meadow, Noeldner said he watched a male American woodcock perform his dramatic spring mating dance. The bird launches into the sky, wind whistling in his wings, until he has spiraled so high he is barely visible. He then nosedives back to earth and resumes his strut.

Said Noeldner: "The sky dance of the woodcocks is the fireworks we love."

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