Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Farmland in Wisconsin  DNR File

Partnerships are critical to balancing economic and environmental needs.
DNR File

August 2014

Land and water conservation

Wisconsin's Proud Heritage.

Jim VandenBrook, Cate Harrington, Danielle Santry and Derek Kavanaugh

Wisconsin is its land, its waters and its people. The health of all three depends on one another. How Wisconsin citizens conserve and maintain the state's limited land base and soil productivity — as well as its lakes, streams and groundwater — will determine the future of the state's economy and quality of life.

It is the mission of county land and water conservation committees (LWCCs) and departments (LWCDs) to help landowners and users meet their objectives while protecting common economic and environmental infrastructure: land and water resources. The Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association (WLWCA) supports the efforts of LWCC supervisors and conservation staff in 72 county LWCD offices through training, conservation standards development, youth education, grants, partnership building and advocacy.

WLWCA works with a variety of state and federal agencies including the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, the Department of Natural Resources, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, the USDA Farm Service Agency and the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension Service. These agencies provide the LWCCs and LWCDs with technical assistance, recommendations and financial support for project implementation.

The following success stories highlight partnerships, grants and expertise that have been brought together to tackle some of the state's most pressing land and water resource concerns.

Land, water and people: How conservation works

Jim VandenBrook and Cate Harrington

For Mark Peterson, farming is a family affair. The land south of Mount Horeb where Peterson owns and operates a small dairy was homesteaded by his family in the late 1800s. His father, Paul, who farmed the land before him, still helps out, and Peterson's cousin, Steve, owns the farm next door, which he took over from his father.

"I think we've survived over the years," Peterson says, "because we're not afraid to try new things."

Peterson appears to be carrying on the family tradition of innovation. He's one of 22 farmers in the Pleasant Valley watershed taking part in an experiment to see if making changes to the way they farm can improve water quality in local streams that drain into the river.

The Pleasant Valley pilot watershed project, on a tributary to the Pecatonica River, combines a time–tested approach to conservation along with new planning tools to attempt to achieve improved water quality by reducing phosphorus runoff and soil erosion from agricultural lands.

Too much phosphorus leads to excessive algae growth, which can block sunlight from underwater plants, consume oxygen in the water and lead to fish kills, interfere with shellfish and other filter feeders and cause surface scum and bad odors.

Farmers have stepped up to install conservation practices that fit their operations in an efficient, science–based and targeted way. In just four years, water quality results have already shown promise. Through a process known as "locally–led conservation," farmers, scientists, agencies, private nonprofits and local conservationists are working together to achieve both increased farm profitability and environmental performance.

What is "locally–led conservation?"

Locally–led conservation is based on the principle that community members are the most capable to identify and resolve natural resource problems. In this case, the Dane County Land and Water Resources Department and Green County Land Conservation Department facilitate the work of a strong partnership including the University of Wisconsin, The Nature Conservancy, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, USDA–Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and, most importantly, farmers in the watershed. In 2010, this partnership began testing the idea that water quality in a watershed can be improved by focusing conservation practices on those fields and pastures with the greatest potential for contributing phosphorus to streams.

The Pleasant Valley project

Using a land management inventory conducted by a UW–Madison graduate student and Dane County conservation staff, the partners identified a small number of farms in the Pleasant Valley watershed that were contributing comparatively large amounts of phosphorus to the stream. They used a soil erosion estimate and the new Phosphorus Index model, which estimates the risk of phosphorus runoff from farm fields based on soil conditions and management decisions. Dane County conservation staff initially focused on working with just 10 farms to identify alternative management practices, including different types of tillage, crop rotations and manure handling that would reduce sediment and nutrient loss.

UW–Extension and UW–Madison College of Agriculture and Life Sciences researchers helped some of the farmers assess the financial costs associated with implementing various management practices on their farms to find the best fit. The USDA–NRCS provided most of the funding to implement the changes, with the additional funds provided by the farmers and The Nature Conservancy through grants from the Monsanto Company and the McKnight Foundation.

Early results

Starting in 2006, the USGS and the Department of Natural Resources set up monitoring gauges and gathered data on sediment deposition, bank erosion, water quality and fish and invertebrate populations in the Pleasant Valley watershed. They also gathered baseline data in a second watershed, where no action is being taken, so that differences between the two could be compared.

From 2010 to 2012, farmers converted about 1,500 acres of cropland to no–till (roughly one–third of watershed crop acres), installed eight barnyard runoff systems, wrote nutrient management plans covering 3,405 cropland and pasture acres, fenced livestock from more than four miles of streams, added 14 cattle crossings to the streams and installed four grade stabilization structures. These changes reduced estimated phosphorus delivery by 45 percent and estimated average erosion by 49 percent compared to baseline (2006–2009) on the targeted cropland and pasture acres.

Streambank stabilization was important because the project showed that stream sediments were coming from both upland and stream bank erosion. The county used voluntary, non–regulatory, incentive–based approaches with farmers in the watershed. While it is important that the models used to estimate phosphorus and sediment runoff are showing reductions, it is even more impressive that actual water quality monitoring data is showing a downward trend in phosphorus load to the streams.

"The positive water quality results we're already seeing are a testament to the farmers' willingness to take the risks associated with trying new things and to the incredible amount of science and expertise partners bring to the project that makes the risks farmers are taking calculated ones," says Steve Richter, The Nature Conservancy's director of conservation programs.

Respect works

"Locally–led conservation projects work because there is mutual respect among all the participants," explains Kevin Connors, director of the Dane County Land and Water Resources Department.

Peterson adds, "Working with the county was a good give–and–take situation. Neither of us got everything we wanted, but in the end, we made some good changes."

The project partners respect the land, the care it needs and the health of the waters that wise land management brings. They know that conservation is timeless, and has no finish line.

Jim VandenBrook is executive director of the Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association. Cate Harrington is a senior conservation writer with The Nature Conservancy.

Lower Fox River farmers make wise environmental choices

Danielle Santry

Southeast of Kaukauna lies the headwaters of Kankapot and Plum creeks, two impaired tributaries to the Lower Fox River. These watersheds account for approximately 10 percent of sediment and nutrients to the Lower Fox River and Green Bay. Dominated by agriculture, the watershed is comprised of rich clay soils that provide prime farmland for area farmers.

Kankapot Creek meanders past one of Ken and Paul Hoelzel’s farmsteads. Ken and Paul have been working these soils for nearly 20 years. They started taking over their uncle’s farm in the early 1990s. At that time, the farm housed 140 cows.

Today Hoelzel Dairy operates nearly 900 acres to feed over 500 cows and youngstock. The majority of their farmsteads and croplands eventually drain into Kankapot and Plum creeks. Over the years, storm events have eroded the banks of Kankapot Creek near one farmstead and swept away precious soil from their fields. The Hoelzels tried to stabilize gullies and streambanks on their own. Unsuccessful, Ken and Paul turned to the Outagamie County Land Conservation Department (LCD) for help.

It seems the Hoelzels picked an opportune time to seek assistance. The Department of Natural Resources was finishing a study documenting the amount of pollutants running into the Fox River downstream of Lake Winnebago. This study, referred to as a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), did not focus on just the river. It aimed at capturing the sediment and nutrient runoff impacts of the entire watershed including all smaller tributaries to the Fox River.

Hoelzel Dairy’s location provided a great opportunity to begin targeting financial and technical assistance throughout the Lower Fox River watershed. Ken and Paul were interested in assistance with nutrient management and increasing manure storage capacity.

A nutrient management plan is like a checkbook; it helps farmers balance the amount of nutrients applied to a field based on crop needs. Benefits include reduced nutrient application rates, reduced commercial fertilizer costs and improved application timing to further reduce runoff risk during weather conditions. Reducing fertilizer costs and runoff risks provide a win–win scenario for both farmers and water quality. Ken and Paul worked on plan development with their crop consultant to improve manure management and address soil erosion concerns.

"That plan indicated the need for more manure storage to eliminate applications during prime runoff conditions," notes Quint Krueger, conservation technician with the Outagamie County LCD. "Winter manure application near surface waters or on steep slopes increases the risk of manure runoff in the spring."

To add storage to the farm, Ken and Paul worked with the Outagamie County LCD to apply for a Targeted Runoff Management (TRM) Grant through the Department of Natural Resources. Large projects like Hoelzel Dairy are perfect for the TRM Grant program. The department is able to target resources to a TMDL watershed and local county staff is able to provide financial assistance to local operators beyond their limited annual budgets.

"Hoelzel Dairy had a number of resource concerns identified during a farm visit" says Krueger. "We worked with Ken and Paul to come up with a plan to meet both environmental concerns and management issues for the operation."

In addition, the Hoelzel’s were interested in a collection system for cattle feed pad runoff and stabilizing the bank at their Kankapot Creek site.

Addressing all these concerns, along with adding a larger manure storage system and abandoning the existing manure storage system, would have been cost–prohibitive for similar–sized operations. Thankfully, county conservation staff have strong partners.

The Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) provided additional cost share funds through their Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) targeting Kankapot and Plum creeks. EQIP funds provided additional resources, primarily to address stream bank erosion and cropland gullies.

"The additional manure storage is a huge benefit, especially during the spring," says Paul Hoelzel. "It allows us flexibility to haul manure at opportune times, and reduces our need to spread during wet spring conditions and on our hay ground."

In the end, a farmer’s work is never done. Ken and Paul have future plans to add a wildlife wetland scrape through NRCS programs. Hoelzel Dairy’s conservation efforts are a strong example of what can be done in the TMDL watersheds.

Danielle Santry is a water resource specialist with Calumet County and is a contributing author and member of the Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association.

LWCD helps bring technical experts together to answer Park Lake community challenges

Derek Kavanaugh

Park Lake in Columbia County is a 312–acre impoundment near the headwaters of the Fox River, which, until recently, was well known to the locals for the bass, bluegills and pike that lurked amongst the weed–dominated shallows. Through years of declining water quality conditions, many plant species have been replaced by nuisance coontail and milfoil, and by 2001, the once plant–dominated clear–water lake had shifted to a turbid–water, algal–dominated one. Fish surveys conducted in 1996 and 2007 showed over a 70 percent reduction in bluegill, crappie and largemouth bass populations.

In 2001, the Park Lake Management District partnered with the Columbia County Land and Water Conservation Department (LWCD) and the Department of Natural Resources to help coordinate a multi–faceted planning and conservation effort among the various agencies and government bodies. The LWCD was uniquely positioned to address the overall issues. They had the environmental resource professionals and engineering staff available, and were eligible for and willing to use DNR grants to help address the problems. They were also familiar with the landowners and the local issues.

Columbia County LWCD completed an inventory of the 53.4 square miles of land that drain into Park Lake. They found that 78 percent of the watershed was agricultural land. They also found some of the 59 livestock operations needed updating to meet current agricultural performance standards.

The Columbia County LWCD applied for $108,000 in DNR Lake Planning Grants and Lake Protection Grants to work with UW–Stevens Point to collect water samples throughout the year on the Fox River to better understand when and where the phosphorus was coming from. What they discovered was high in–stream phosphorus levels, which were causing in–lake phosphorus levels to be three times higher than the target standard.

In 2007, armed with newly collected scientific data, the Columbia County LWCD initiated a lake management plan utilizing grant funding from the Department of Natural Resources. Public meetings were held to discuss concerns, management options and associated costs. One of the core principles established early in the planning process was that public participation in the decision making would be essential to the long–term success in restoring Park Lake.

Once a lake has flipped to a turbid, algal–dominated system, it is very hard to switch it back to a plant–dominated, clear water state.

The LWCD took a two–pronged approach to the lake management plan, including in–lake management and watershed management.

In–lake management includes manipulating fish populations, water quality and plants. In the case of Park Lake, one of the proposals was to conduct a drawdown to increase plant growth in the shallow areas of the lake. Rooted plants help tie up phosphorus, making it unavailable for algae, and reducing the number of severe algal blooms. The positive effect of clear water and more plants is an increase in bluegill and bass populations.

Watershed management includes various "Best Management Practices" (BMPs) to reduce the amount of sediment and nutrients that run off into the lake. BMPs include manure storage, barnyard treatment systems, nutrient management plans, detention ponds, no–till, grassed waterways and cover crops, among many others.

Installing BMPs across a 35,000–acre watershed on hundreds of private properties will take many years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. It takes years of literally going door–to–door and working voluntarily with each landowner. The LWCD has received over $700,000 from the Department of Natural Resources in Targeted Runoff Management Grants to reduce runoff into Park Lake by working with landowners in the watershed to install structural BMPs.

These efforts not only pay off in improved water quality for Park Lake, but also downstream through the entire Fox River to Green Bay. The community now has the information they need to move forward thanks to the cooperative efforts of many partners.

Derek Kavanaugh Derek Kavanaugh is a soil conservationist with Green Lake County and is a contributing author and member of the Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association.