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December 20, 2011

MADISON -- Wisconsin now proposes to make official what anglers and residents along two streams in Buffalo County and a third in Dane County have experienced in recent years: the water quality in these waters has improved and trout fisheries are taking hold.

Eagle Creek and Joos Valley Creek in Buffalo County, and German Valley Creek in Dane County, are proposed to be removed from Wisconsin's impaired waters list, the payoff from years of partnerships and investment by government, private landowners and conservation groups to keep soil and manure on the land and out of the water -- and to restore in-stream habitat.

"What better story is there than saying that together we've restored these streams that were once mud holes and are now functioning viable trout streams?" says Jim Amrhein, the Department of Natural Resources water quality biologist in southern Wisconsin who formally submitted the proposal to remove German Valley Creek from the Impaired Waters list.

"We're so lucky to live in a county (Dane County) willing to put dollars toward this kind of effort. We now have anglers from Iowa and Illinois coming here, spending their money and supporting Wisconsin jobs, and saying that they're happy to have these new smaller, but less crowded trout waters to fish on."

German Valley Creek

In the 1970s, the 7-mile long German Valley Creek, a spring-fed creek with its headwaters southwest of Mount Horeb, was suffering from habitat degradation due to erosion from farm fields and stream banks, and from manure from barnyard runoff. It had never been considered to have potential to be a trout water, but was dominated by fish able to tolerate warmer temperatures and lower water quality, according to Dave Marshall, another water quality biologist involved in the project.

.But starting in the mid- 1980s, federal, state and local governments worked to enroll farmers in the federal Conservation Reserve Program, which paid farmers to take highly erodible land out of production. By the 2000s, more than 20 percent of the land in the watershed was enrolled in CRP, less polluted runoff was entering the stream and more rain water and melting snow was soaking into the ground. Consequently, stream flow improved and water temperature in the creek dropped.

"Brown trout, mottled sculpin and American brook lamprey moved in there," Marshall recalled. "It was telling us it wanted to be a trout stream."

That got people, particularly landowners along the stream, excited and Dane County applied for state grant funding to help restore streamside and in-stream habitat. DNR worked with the county on the projects and with Trout Unlimited. The fish response to in-stream habitat work has been modest but steadily increasing through time, state fisheries biologists report.

"These projects show the perfect sequence: fix the watershed, then fix the habitat, and you'll see rewards," Marshall says. "It's good these waters are coming off the list."

Joos Valley and Eagle creeks

In Buffalo County, the story was much the same.

"We began working with the farmers, placing electrical fencing above the creek streambanks in the pastures to keep the cows out and creating crossing areas," according to Tom Schultz, Buffalo County conservation technician.

"We also used DNR priority watershed money to cost-share with farmers for manure storage areas," he says. When several farmers felt they couldn't afford their share of the storage structures, the Fountain City and Alma Rod and Gun Club chipped in funds to help decrease the farmers' cost.

Once the cows weren't trampling the streambanks, the county began work to help stabilize the banks and prevent stream bank erosion. Volunteers from the rod and gun clubs helped install hundreds of structures in the creeks to provide cover for trout.

The result is now a well-documented water quality success. A 17-year long collaborative study between DNR and U.S. Geological Survey documented vast improvement in water quality: an 89 percent drop in suspended solids, 77 decrease for total phosphorus, and 66 percent for ammonia nitrogen on Eagle Creek, and similar statistics for Joos Valley Creek, according to Roger Bannerman, DNR water resources management specialist and a co-author of the USGS report.

Trout populations seem to be responding in Eagle Creek, according to Dan Hatleli, DNR fisheries biologist in Black River Falls.

Right now, Eagle Creek is classified as a Class III trout water, which means it requires stocking to provide a significant harvest, and does not provide habitat suitable for trout to survive throughout the year.

But a 2011 survey of upper Eagle Creek found young brook trout, indicating natural reproduction, and a habitat restoration project along the creek will help the fish. Crews restored 3,515 feet of stream bank this year through a project funded by revenues from the sale of the trout stamps anglers must buy to fish inland waters for trout, and federal Natural Resources Conservation Service funds.

Some bank stabilization and habitat structures were placed in Joos Valley Creek in 1991 and 2001, and trout have been found during DNR surveys in some years but not others. The prolonged drought has likely had an impact, but biologists are hopeful the trout will return.

FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: Jim Amrhein - (608) 275-3280

Last Revised: Tuesday, December 20, 2011

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