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Clean water and watershed planning taken up by committee
Vernon Land and Water Conservation
Kennedy holds up watershed signs
MARTY KENNEDY, Parks Administrator with Vernon County Land+Water, is seen holding up the signs currently or soon-to-be on display in the Tainter Creek Watershed. One sign is intended to be placed in fields where cover crops are being grown, and the other is intended for placement at various entrances to the watershed.

VIROQUA - At their November 18 meeting, the Vernon County Land Conservation Committee took up issues relating to clean water, and to watershed planning, and the NRCS watershed study for the dams that breached in the 2018 rain event and flooding.

Johnson Bridgwater, Water Advocates Organizer with the River Alliance of Wisconsin, participated in the meeting virtually. He was there to speak about an initiative to encourage county boards across the state to pass resolutions calling on the Wisconsin Legislature to act on the recommendations for clean water than came out of the Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality.

Clean Water Resolution


Conducting a Countywide Advisory Referendum on Clean Water Now for Wisconsin

WHEREAS, there are numerous indicators that the citizens of Vernon County are concerned

about clean drinking water and clean lakes because of the health of its people and the economic

impact(s) on its people and industries; and,

WHEREAS, the Land and Water Conservation Committee is directly involved in local and

regional discussions focusing on surface water and ground water issues and statutorily charged

with considering issues related to these topics; and,

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that the Vernon County Board of Supervisors, in

legal session assembled, does hereby approve that the following question be placed on the April

6, 2021 ballot as an advisory referendum:

Question: Should the State of Wisconsin establish a right to clean water to protect human health,

the environment, and the diverse cultural and natural heritage of

Wisconsin YES_____ NO_____; and,

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the Corporation Counsel shall prepare a Notice of

Referendum to be published by the Vernon County Clerk in accordance with statutory

requirements; and,

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that this resolution and the referendum shall be filed with the

Vernon County Clerk no later than 70 days prior to the April 6, 2021 election, at which the

question will appear on the ballot; and,

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the Vernon County Clerk is directed to send results of the

referendum to the Governor of the State of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Counties Association, and

to local members of the State Legislature.

FISCAL NOTE. There are no fiscal obligations associated with this resolution.

“Wood, Marquette and Portage counties passed the non-binding resolution in April of 2021,” Bridgwater explained. “This resolution is a way to give the voters a chance to practice democracy around clean water issues in the state, and to build a statewide tapestry of support.”

Bridgwater said that passage of the resolution would help to empower legislators, be non-partisan, be beneficial to local county leaders, and focus on economic health and public safety.

Wisconsin State Representative Loren Oldenburg, who represents the 96th State Assembly District, was present at the meeting.

“The recommendations and corresponding bills that came out of the Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality were passed by the Wisconsin Assembly, and taken up by committees in the Senate, but when COVID hit, they were never voted on in the Senate,” Oldenburg explained. “Now, Speaker Vos and the Senate don’t want to spend money from the American Rescue Plan Funds because that would mean they would have to spend more money on the schools.”

Oldenburg touted the bill currently moving through the State Senate, SB 677, introduced by State Senator Brad Pfaff, as a good bill that addresses many of the recommendations of the Speaker’s Task Force.

Among initiatives supported by SB 677 are creation of a commercial nitrogen optimization pilot program, providing crop insurance rebates for cover crops, creating a hydrogeologist position, and more.

Oldenburg noted that “there is nothing wrong with the resolution” and it doesn’t commit the county to any spending or actions.

“Water really is a non-partisan issue,” Oldenburg said.

The committee voted unanimously to recommend placing the resolution on the ballot for the April 2022 election to the Vernon County Board of Supervisors.

Watershed planning

Monique Hassman, Watershed Planner with the Vernon County Land Conservation Department, provided the committee with a report on her activities and initiatives.

Hassman reported that Vernon County now has three active producer-led watershed councils – the Tainter Creek Watershed Council, the Bad Axe Watershed Council, and the Coon Creek Community Watershed Council.

“The grazing project in the Tainter Creek Watershed has gone really well, and we are still accepting applicants for the Grazing Project funds,” Hassman said. “We have also written producer profiles for those that are participating in the grazing project, and these are meant to be shared, producer-to-producer.”

Hassman said that the Bad Axe Watershed Council has been meeting for about three months now. She explained that the Coon Creek Community Watershed Council has also been meeting for about three months, and is a little more diverse than the other watersheds, including farmers, community members and members of the business community.

“All three watershed councils have applied for DATCP Producer-Led Watershed Council grants,” Hassman explained. “Tainter Creek has been funded three times for $40,000, and once for $30,000.”

Hassman also reported that the work of the Vernon County Flood Mitigation Alliance, which she helps to coordinate, has really “snow-balled.” She reported that they have a new web page showing the partnerships they have formed, and have also distributed materials about their effort at various county events.

“We have also supported the work of Land Information Officer Doug Avoles in development of a flood damage reporting tool and database,” Hassman said. “Working with a couple of interns, we have been able to input damage information correlated with maps for flooding events since 2007, and the tool will be available for town patrolmen to upload damage information directly into the system.”

Hassman said that this conversion of dusty, old paper copies of information into a useable digital format will greatly aid the county in disaster recovery efforts in the future. She said that it allows the county to see the impacts of the flooding events spatially for any storm in any given year, and also to run reports which are crucial for grant writing.

“This initiative recently spurred a meeting with the state to review our tool, and to pursue additional funding opportunities,” Hassman said. “They are currently reviewing our 10-year plan and our multi-hazard mitigation plan.”

Hassman reported that she has also been working with the Grasslands 2.0 learning hub that has been established in the Driftless Region. She reports she is helping them to develop a survey, and helping them to model phosphorous and sediment reductions from conversion of cropland to pasture.

Hassman also reported on an exciting new development in her work with Valley Stewardship Network. VSN is receiving funding from the Sand County Foundation to expand the type of managed rotational grazing project, which has been so successful in the Tainter Creek Watershed, more broadly in the Driftless Region. The foundation was recently awarded $1.5 million from NRCS as a Regional Conservation Partnership Program grant for this purpose.

“The task is basically to take the Tainter Creek Watershed Council grazing project and expand it,” Hassman said. “We are teeing things up to help farmers to work with NRCS for funding, and there is now a special pot of money available through the EQIP program to be able to provide some mentoring as producers make the transition in production models.”

Dams watershed study

NRCS State Conservation Engineer Steve Becker attended the meeting remotely from Montana to discuss progress on the ‘Plan/Environmental Impact Study’ for the Coon Creek and West Fork Kickapoo watersheds. The study was funded after five flood control dams in the two watersheds failed in the 2018 rain event that caused historic flooding.

Becker reported that his team is currently working on testing the sediment that has accumulated behind the dams they are recommending be decommissioned. He said that this testing has been mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to determine if the legacy sediment contains contaminants such as Atrazine, N-P-K fertilizer residues, PFAS, etc.

Becker said the goal of the testing is to determine if the sediment can be left in place if the dams are decommissioned, or will need to be removed and spread. He said that in addition to EPA, which has a regulatory interest, UW-Extension and the DNR Water Quality Bureau are also involved.

“We have a request for proposals out now for the testing,” Becker said. “Currently, we have a proposal from the Wisconsin State Lab of Hygiene for $81,000, which we consider to be cost prohibitive.”

Representative Oldenburg suggested that perhaps it would make sense to start with testing of just one sediment pool behind one dam to determine if broader testing is even necessary. Becker thanked Oldenburg for the suggestion, and said that it made sense and might be an option.

Becker told the committee he had also asked the economists on the study team to look at compensation models for agricultural lands below the dams. He said that 166 acres in the West Fork Kickapoo River Watershed, and 218 acres in the Coon Creek Watershed would be impacted if the dams were decommissioned.

“I asked them, given those lands will lose protection if the dams are decommissioned, to calculate how much a purchase of an easement for agricultural rights would cost,” Becker said. “They are looking at the agricultural land values in the region ($2,800/acre) plus $3/acre/year in taxes.”

Becker said that they have calculated that all together, if they were to purchase the easements it would still cost less than the $4 million cost of building a new dam ($1.73 million in West Fork Kickapoo and $2.28 million in Coon Creek).

“If the government is proposing to buy agricultural land, then that is starting to look like government ownership of watersheds,” committee member Kevin Larson commented. “People at this point are more afraid of the dams when they’re full than they are of water running freely through them.”

Larson said that the team is also looking at defining the best possible flood protection for the two watersheds from an increase in acres in woodlands and an increase in acres in meadow. From there, he said, they will look at different strategies such as Grasslands 2.0, and building soil health to sequester more carbon, and infiltrate more water to prevent runoff.

“Our engineering firm is trying to hire environmental specialists to complete this analysis,” Becker said. “However, right now, they are struggling to be able to hire good people.”

Becker told the committee that as a result, he has requested that NRCS extend the performance deadline for the study from December 31, 2021 to December 31, 2022.

Vernon County Supervisor Mary Henry weighed in on the topic.

“It seems like there’s been a lot of money spent on this study but Vernon County has gotten little from it,” Henry said.

Steve Becker responded to Henry’s comment.

“This whole study is to position us to make a major request for federal funding,” Becker explained.

“I worry about the people downstream from these decommissioned dams,” Henry said. “We know that there’s more big storms coming.”