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Hill Country Watershed Alliance meeting draws a good crowd
In Viroqua
Hill Country Watershed Meeeting
DAVE KRIER of Valley Stewardship Network addressed members of the Hill Country Watershed Alliance at a meeting at the Viroqua Eagles Club on April 4. The subject of his talk was surface water quality in the Tainter Creek, Rush Creek, Coon Creek and Bad Axe River watersheds.

DRIFTLESS - The quarterly meeting of the Hill Country Watershed Alliance drew about 50 people to the Viroqua Eagles Club on Thursday, April 4. A build-your-own hamburger dinner was prepared and served by Julie Ruef and her team.

The Hill Country Watershed Alliance is a non-profit umbrella group formed from members of the Tainter, Rush and Coon Creek Community, and the Bad Axe Stewards watershed councils. The group has a board, and is intended to serve as a fiscal agent, and provide the means for collaboration among the watershed councils on staffing, grant writing, education, and recruitment of new councils and new members.

Currently serving on the board are Travis Klinkner, Brad Robson and Marilyn Volden from the Bad Axe Stewards; Chad Erickson and William Walleser from the Rush Creek Watershed Council; and Brady Nigh and Nancy Wedwick from the Coon Creek Community Watershed Council. Representatives are still being sought from the Tainter Creek Watershed Council.

Two presentations

The group enjoyed two presentations at the meeting on the topic of water quality. The first was from Valley Stewardship’s (VSN)Dave Krier on surface water quality in the watersheds. The second was from Vernon County Conservation Director Ben Wojahn on ground-and well water quality in the watersheds.

Krier explained that  VSN samples surface water quality at 29 sites in Vernon, Crawford and Monroe counties between the months of May and October. Sampling is done to determine levels of phosphorous and nitrate in the water, levels of dissolved oxygen, concentration of macroinvertebrates, temperature and turbidity.

“Last year, we began the process of synchronizing our sampling all on the same day in order to increase the quality of the data we’re generating,” Krier said. “We haven’t got the staff to sample all the sites at the same time yet.”

The samples once collected are kept on ice, and shipped to the State Lab of Hygiene. Sampling for macroinvertebrates is done once per year in the fall. Samples are preserved in lab alcohol, and shipped to a lab at UW-Superior.

Krier explained that phosphorous is naturally occurring, but appears in surface water mainly as a result of being a nutrient applied to crops as a fertilizer. Phosphorous binds to soil particles, and enters surface water when soil erodes.

“When there is little runoff, and the water is clear, there is typically low amounts of phosphorous in surface water,” Krier explained. “Conversely, when the water is silty and looks like chocolate milk, there are often high amounts of phosphorous in surface water.”

Krier explained that excess phosphorous in surface waters encourages the growth of algae blooms, which can produce blue-green algae, which is harmful to both humans and animals. Excess levels can also lead to eutrophication, where there will be decreasd levels of dissolved oxygen because of excess plant growth. This, he said, can be harmful to fish and other aquatic life. Ultimately, phosphorous entering surface waters in the Upper Mississippi River Watershed contributes to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

“What’s most important is that farmers are paying for the excess nutrients that run off or erode from their fields and wreak havoc in surface waters,” Krier explained. “All of the phosphorous running off the land and into streams is dollars lost from the farm bottom line.”

To keep phosphorous on the land where it is needed, and prevent it from entering surface water, farmers can keep or add contour strips, keep fence rows, install check dams in gullies, increase regenerative grazing and pasture on their farm, and include native prairie strips on their land.

Krier reported on the ongoing monitoring in the Tainter Creek Watershed in conjunction with the three-year Wallace Center Grazing Project implemented there. In that project, croplands were converted to regenerative grazing, or grazing systems were improved on 14 farms totaling 986 acres.

“Results of this project exceeded the project goals,” Krier said. “As a result of the project, it’s estimated that 2,300 pounds of phosphorous and 1,600 tons of sediment have been prevented from leaving those fields every year.

Krier presented the multi-year monitoring results for the 29 sites they monitor, and in all cases, a downward trend for phosphorous has been observed. The follow up of the Tainter Creek project has been somewhat complicated during the last two growing seasons, due to the lack of rainfall. With few rain events, the chance of soil erosion carrying phosphorrous into streams is vastly decreased.

Nitrates in water

Nitrates in surface water is another key metric VSN monitors at 29 sites in surface water. According to Krier, nitrogen is a nutrient applied as fertilizer to crops, and can also come from effluent from water treatment plants. It is very soluble in water, and there are currently no state limits for nitrates in surface water.

In drinking water, EPA and WDNR define the safe level for nitrates as 10 parts-per-million or less.

Stream water sampling for nitrate in the watersheds shows nearly steady levels over time. Almost all of the results were below what the U.S. Geological Survey defines as the naturally occurring level of nitrate in surface water of 0.6 milligrams-per-liter.

Among the farmers there was some surprise that this water quality sampling was ongoing in their watersheds, and gratitude for learning about the effort. Some concern was raised about efforts in the State of Minnesota to put a tax on fertilizer sales, with the fear that such an initiative might eventually come to Wisconsin.

Ground water quality

Ben Wohahn reported to the group on results of ground/well water sampling in Vernon County. He reported that there have been an unusually high level of samples taken in Franklin Township because of the efforts of both the watershed council there as well as the Driftless Area Water Study (DAWS) that tested wells in Crawford, Vernon and Richland counties.

“There are definitely elevated levels of nitrate showing up in wells in Vernon County,” Wojahn said. “While there has been more sampling in Franklin Township, the problems are spread throughout the county.”

Wojahn explained that pretty much all the wells sampled in the three county area have hard water, due to the karst bedrock geology of the region. He emphasized that hard water is not a health problem, and that it can be addressed by adding salt to your homes water softener.

The Driftless Area Water Study group hopes that Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey (WGNHS) will undertake a thorough well water, well construction and geology survey in the three counties similar to the SWIGG Study undertaken in Grant, Iowa and Lafayette counties.

In addition, WGNHS has been working on updated bedrock geology maps for the three counties since before the start of the COVID pandemic. Currently, the official state bedrock geology maps for the three counties date back to the 1880s.

Sampling results

Between October of 2018 and April of 2021, DAWS, Tainter Creek Watershed Council, and Crawford Sttewardship Project all undertook water quality sampling in the three counties.

Across those five testing events in October 2018, March 2019, November 2019, October 2020, and April 2021, the following results were shown for nitrate levels in well water:

• 18% showed no nitrate

• 30% showed only naturally occurring levels of nitrate (2 mg/L or less)

• 25% showed levels of 2.1 to 5 milligrams-per-liter (mg/L)

• 18% showed levels of 5.1 to 10 mg/L

• 8% showed levels of 10.1 to 20 mg/L

• 1% showed levels of 20.1 or greater mg/L

The standards for safe drinking water levels of nitrate is 10 milligrams-per-liter or less. Wells with results in the 5.1 to 10 mg/L are considered to be “moving in the wrong direction,” and those with levels of 10.1 mg/L or higher are considered unsafe to drink.

This means that 27% of wells tested in the three counties showed either concerning or unsafe levels of nitrate.

In a round of sampling conducted in November of 2022, with only Vernon and Crawford counties participating, the following results were shown from a relatively small amount of samples:

• 16% showed no nitrate detected

• 23% showed only naturally occurring levels of 2 mg/L or less

• 26% showed levels of 2.1 to 5 mg/L

• 25% showed levels of 5.1 to 10 mg/L

• 9% showed levels of 10.1 to 20 mg/L.

So in the November 2022 round of testing in Vernon and Crawford counties, 34% of samples showed either concerning or unsafe levels of nitrate.

The three county group is considering another round of well water testing in 2024.

Upcoming events

• April 10: Coon Creek Community Watershed Council, regular monthly meeting

• April 11: Bad Axe Stewards regular monthly meeting

• April 17: Bad Axe Stewards Soil Pit event at the McClurg Farm near Bud, E5268A Highway 56

• May 4: Coon Creek Conservation Days with polka musician Mollie B. The second annual event will take place this year on the site of the old Civilian Conservation Corps Camp, in collaboration with Coon Valley Dairy Supply Company and the Town of Coon. In addition to conservation activities, the event will be co-located with a Makers Market, and will offer food and drink. Tickets to see Mollie B and Friends perform are live on the Coon Creek Community Watershed Council website. Tickets are $20 for adults, and free for students and children. General entry to Valley Conservation Day is free, and does not require a ticket.