HARMONY TOWNSHIP - The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) held a public hearing on a proposal by Harmony Valley Organics owner Richard de Wilde to make withdrawals of water from the North Fork of the Bad Axe River for the purpose of irrigation of vegetable crops. De Wilde had recently acquired an 11.57-acre tillable field, and asked that the parcel be added to his current irrigation permit. De Wilde has held an irrigation permit for other parcels in the watershed since 1988.
“My application to add my new parcel to my irrigation permit does not constitute an expansion of the total permitted water withdrawal amount,” de Wilde explained. “My goal in acquiring the property is to secure less flood-prone ground for my organic vegetable operation.”
The total authorized annual water withdrawal amount permitted by WDNR for the operation is 11,488,490 gallons. De Wilde is allowed to irrigate his crops from river water up to 10 times per year, between the dates of May 15 to September 15. He is required by WDNR to monitor dates and amounts of water pumped from the river each time he makes a withdrawal.
“The annual reporting on my water withdrawals from the river is a public record,” De Wilde said. “The most water I ever withdrew in a single year was in 2012, when I pumped about 3.5 million gallons.”
De Wilde explained that there are generally three different methods used in his operation to deliver water from the river to plants. He said that he uses water in order to germinate seeds or to establish bedding plants until they can set their roots.
Those methods include drip irrigation, buried in the soil at the time of planting, sprinklers and a water gun. De Wilde said that drip irrigation is used with plants such as squash or onions which have long growing seasons. Sprinklers or water guns, according to De Wilde, are used primarily when it is hot and dry, or to germinate shallowly seeded crops like carrots. He said that the least used method is the rain gun, used only when it is very dry.
In all cases, de Wilde explained, his equipment is calibrated to deliver the amount of water allowed by WDNR in his permit. Water for the drip irrigation system is withdrawn from the river at the maximum rate of 75 gallons-per-minute, and water for the sprinkler system is withdrawn at a maximum rate of 150 gallons-per-minute. De Wilde says that he uses watermark sensors in his soils to determine the amount of water available to plants and the amount needed.
Impact on habitat
WDNR’s Kyle McLaughlin explained that staff from his agency had conducted a fish survey for a mile upstream of the proposed withdrawal location, as well as calculating the ordinary high water mark. This work, he said, was done in order to determine the lowest level of the stream that can support fish and other wildlife that relies on the habitat.
WDNR fisheries biologist Kirk Olson conducted the fish survey on the stretch of stream one mile upstream from the proposed withdrawal location on November 9. His report said that at the time of evaluation, water in the river was near baseflow as no precipitation had fallen in the previous nine days and much of the region was experiencing abnormally dry conditions. The report stated that discharge measured at the nearest continuous stream gauge, the Kickapoo River at LaFarge, was the lowest it had been since June 17, following a period of moderate drought.
The report stated:
“The stream was clear and its stage was 7.2 inches below the ordinary high water mark (OHWM). Stream discharge was estimated at 36.1 cubic-feet-per-second (cfs), mean stream width was 41.7 feet, and mean thalweg depth (flow path of the deepest water in a river channel) was 1.9 feet. Streambanks in the reach were generally low and stable, with minimal evidence of active erosion on outside bends despite significant flooding in the summer of 2021. Stream gradient was moderate (20.1 feet per mile) and the reach exhibited consistent riffle-run-pool sequences, bends and stream braids.
“Previous trout habitat restoration work, completed in 2002 and 2018, was evident in some areas where banks were stabilized with riprap or vortex rock weirs were installed, but overall channel form and trout habitat appeared to be largely created by natural processes.”
In his report, Olson stated that though the stream is currently classified as a Class II trout stream, the classification is outdated. He said that at this point, the stream should be classified as a Class I trout stream, based upon naturally reproducing Brown Trout at densities substantially exceeding the statewide median.
In his report, Olson described the results of his fish survey on the stream stretch:
“Brown trout were observed actively spawning in several areas throughout the reach. Both redds (the spawning bed of trout in a river or stream, identified by a bowl-shaped indentation of clean bright rocks) and actively spawning adult Brown trout (9-16 inches in length) were observed. Nine active Brown Trout redds were observed in 728 feet of stream near the proposed withdrawal site. Most redds were located in shallow riffles, or in shallow transition areas between runs and riffles. Depth of spawning redds ranged from 3.5 to 15.7 inches.”
Olson’s report stated that WDNR Fisheries Management have completed 17 electrofishing surveys between 2002 and 2021 at a site located 1.1 miles upstream of the proposed withdrawal location. In those surveys, Brown Trout were the most abundant gamefish, with between 328 to 1,223 trout caught per mile. A total if 37 other species were also captured, including Brook Trout and Smallmouth Bass. While it is possible some of the Brown Trout captured originated from stocking, the last time yearling Brown Trout were stocked in the stream was the spring of 2020. High densities of Brown Trout in every annual electrofishing survey between 2002 and 2021, and present of naturally reproduced young of the year, indicate that the population is supported by natural reproduction. Because of this, no future stocking of Brown Trout is planned in the river.
In conclusion, the report says:
“Active Brown Trout spawning and abundance of high-quality spawning habitat in this reach indicates it is an important source of natural reproduction in the North Fork Bad Axe River. Water level reductions below those observed on November 9, 2021, would reduce the amount of available trout spawning habitat and production. Reductions in submerged coarse substrates (gravel, cobble, boulders), aquatic macrophytes, and coarse woody debris, would also occur below this level.
“These habitats are critical for both aquatic invertebrates and trout production. In addition, the amount of adult gamefish resting and feeding habitat around boulders, undercut banks and woody debris would be reduced below this level.
“Based on our evaluation of stream habitat conditions and fish populations, we determined that the minimum water level necessary to protect the public’s interest and fisheries resource from harm is 7.2 feet below the ordinary high water mark or at the water’s surface elevation measured on November 9 of 101.82 feet. Below this level, significant reduction in critical habitat features, submerged during normal low-water conditions, occurs. In addition, the trout spawning avoidance period (Sept. 15 to May 15) should be followed to limit impacts to Brown Trout which have been observed spawning throughout the reach.”
There were a total of 16 participants at the December 29 public hearing, held virtually using Zoom. Of those, only three chose to provide oral public comments.
Abbie Church of the Mississippi Valley Conservancy (MVC) thanked the WDNR for their work in processing the application, and Harmony Valley Farms for the comprehensive application and narrative they provided.
“MVC has an easement on land just to the east of Mr. De Wilde’s new property. That land provides habitat for wood turtles and other listed species,” Church said. “I am concerned that the same times where irrigation for crops is needed – times of drought – will be the times that wildlife is stressed.”
Church stated that she also has concerns about the noise of the pumping operation and the quality of life for neighbors. She also expressed concern about angler’s ability to use the stream for fishing during times when water would be pumped.
Judy Barra of rural Genoa is a neighbor of Mr. De Wilde, and leases land to him for agricultural production.
“Mr. De Wilde has pumped water at the south end of our property, and fishers report catching big fish at that location,” Barra stated. “Because Mr. De Wilde does not use agricultural chemicals in his production system, that is already better for the water. The pumping is not noisy, and Mr. De Wilde has supported habitat restoration work with MVC and Trout Unlimited to reduce the impacts of flooding.”
This reporter asked if there were other permit applications to withdraw water from the river for irrigation of agricultural crops, would water quantity and cumulative impacts be considered in the permitting decision, and how would WDNR balance the competition for the resource?
WDNR’s Wes Matthews responded that in such a case, the same process and the same calculations would be employed. The permitting decision would again be made based on determining the lowest water elevation that would protect the quantity and quality of the water, and habitat for trout and other wildlife.
WDNR’s Wes Matthews stated that the department has made a tentative determination that it will issue the permit for the proposed activity.Written comments regarding this permit application can be submitted until January 13, 2022. Comments can be submitted via e-mail to Wes Matthews at email@example.com.