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Hundreds of mortar tubes being readied for firing at Rhythm and Booms were photographed on an island in the Warner Park lagoon in 2011. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has found that wetlands protection laws were violated when no permit was sought to bring in truckloads of sand used to help mount the fireworks.

JOHN HART — State Journal

As speculation swirled this week that the city of Madison was poised to announce it is moving the annual Rhythm & Booms fireworks spectacular from Warner Park, the state confirmed Tuesday that the city has violated wetland protection laws — apparently for years — in staging the event at the park's lagoon.

The practice of trucking in tons of sand to a lagoon island to help aim  fireworks mortars and absorb their impact violates state law requiring a permit to put fill into a wetland, said Mark Aquino, regional director of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Exactly how long Rhythm & Booms practices violated state law, Aquino could not say. “We were only aware of this because a citizen group complained. That’s why we started looking at it,’ he said.

Wild Warner Park, a grassroots group that has advocated for moving the fireworks display from the lagoon because of its impact on adjacent wetlands, filed a complaint with the DNR in February.

The extent of environmental damage to the wetlands will not be known until DNR maps out what wetlands remain after a half-century of man-made changes to the lagoon area, Aquino said. In the meantime the city Parks Department and the contracted fireworks provider, J&M Displays of Yarmouth, Iowa, have been working with DNR on a plan to mitigate damage to the wetlands, Aquino said. No citations are anticipated, he added.

Mayor Paul Soglin has scheduled a press conference for 11 a.m. Wednesday with Rhythm & Booms organizer Madison Festivals Inc. at the Madison Hilton on Lake Monona, but officials have been tight-lipped on what the announcement will be. After several years of controversy over the fireworks festival’s impact on Warner Park and its north-side neighborhood resulted in a pared-down event this year, there has been quite a bit of speculation about a new location.

Aquino said that the state did not order the city to stop fireworks displays at the Warner Park lagoon. To lawfully bring in sand or any other fill to a protected wetland area like the lagoon, operators must apply for a permit from the DNR. The agency may issue a permit, impose conditions or deny a permit, he said.

Aquino said he could not hazard a guess on whether a permit would have been granted for Rhythm & Booms if an application had been made as the law requires.

For the Rhythm & Booms fireworks display earlier this month — reduced in duration and firepower — 10 truckloads of sand were brought in, Aquino said. He didn't know how much sand was brought in for past years' displays, he said.

After more than 20 years organizing the fireworks show, Terry Kelly, president of the nonprofit Madison Fireworks Inc., in March handed over the event to Madison Festivals Inc. The live bands and beer tents that in past years helped draw 100,000 people or more — prompting complaints of traffic, congestion and crime from neighborhood residents — were dropped this year.

Madison Parks spokesperson Laura Whitmore confirmed Tuesday that the department is working with the DNR on a mitigation plan. In response to an inquiry on why an agency that routinely gets DNR permits for parkland projects did not do so for Rhythm & Booms, Whitmore replied in an email that staff met with the DNR this year to plan for the use of sand and its removal.

“In the 20 or so years of Rhythm & Booms, there is no history of obtaining a permit for the sand for this event,” Whitmore said.

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Jim Carrier, a founder of Wild Warner Park, said his group is not against fireworks, just fireworks in wetlands.

“We have proven over the past two years that Rhythm & Booms pollutes," said Carrier. "They were creating this great show, but they were breaking the law doing it.”

After a city-funded study found debris and contaminants left by the fireworks, Wild Warner Park lobbied the city earlier this year to end the display. Although further study was supported by some city officials, others said that the advocacy group exaggerated the study’s findings.

Carrier said his group is asking city officials to support development of a wetland education center on the island from which the fireworks have been launched. He presented a plan for the center earlier this month to the Board of Park Commissioners.

The proposal would expand on Wild Warner Park’s mostly informal programs to introduce neighborhood kids – many from low-income families – to the park’s pockets of “wild” flora and fauna.

“Kids could walk across the street and see the magic of a wetland; watch the turtles nest, see the birds mate. We’re asking the Parks Department to work with us on this new vision. That’s what we’re asking for in terms of mitigation,” Carrier said.