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Natural Capital is it time to take inventory?

DRIFTLESS REGION -With the start of January, people inevitably start to think of tax season. For merchants, this brings up the topic of inventory, taking stock of the current state of the businesses’ assets. For many employees, this means digging through dusty boxes and counting things.

For those who work in conservation, it means taking stock of the natural assets under their jurisdiction. This could include ground and surface water quality, air quality, soil health and more.

In the book ‘Natural Capitalism,’ authors Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins, the authors explain their theory of natural capitalism.

 “Natural Capitalism recognizes the critical interdependency between the production and use of human-made capital and the maintenance and supply of natural capital. The traditional definition of capital is accumulated wealth in the form of investments, factories and equipment. Actually, an economy needs four types of capital to function properly: human capital; financial capital; manufactured capital; and natural capital, made up of resources, living systems and ecosystem services.”

Because the state of ‘natural capital’ is almost never reflected in profit and loss statements, descriptions of results can be misleading. If the depletion of the finite assets of ‘natural capital’ are not factored in, then it is hard to understand whether the year’s operations have been successful or not.

For instance, if a business in a community creates good jobs that pay some members of the community well, but it has an adverse impact on the groundwater for the entire community, then it might be hard to argue that the community is further ahead for having the business and the jobs.

It could be argued that a responsible business plan for a community should account for the natural assets or capital of the area. What, for instance is the value of having clean water to drink, and what are the costs of losing it?

As we’ve seen in other areas of the state where the community has failed to safeguard its natural assets, such as groundwater, it can be here today and gone tomorrow.

One need look no further than Kewaunee County or the Townships of Holmen and Onalaska. Their groundwater is polluted, and property values and tax bases are eroding. The health impacts and costs are yet to be computed.

And the value of the trout fishing industry locally, which relies upon clean surface waters, is estimated to be over 1.5 billion dollars. With the Driftless Region’s underlying karst geology, the quality of ground and surface water is integrally connected.

Many counties do not have a baseline or inventory of their groundwater assets. A baseline measurement is like a snap shot, giving a picture of the status of groundwater quality at a moment in time. Like the inventory of a merchant, it is information that can be used by conservation professionals and local governments to evaluate changes over time. It can pinpoint problem areas, and document successes in conservation strategies.

Without a baseline to compare to, it is difficult to see what changes – good or bad – have occurred, or to formulate strategies.

Grant County

Grant County Conservationist Lynda Schweikert recently confirmed that the county is pursuing testing of groundwater. The county is working with The Center for Watershed Science and Education (CWSE), a joint project of UW-Stevens Point and UW-Extension Stevens Point.

“Grant County is in the process of writing our Land and Water Resource Management Plan (LWRMP) for the next 10 years,” Schweikert said. “Since groundwater is a high priority for us, we decided that we needed to develop a county-wide baseline in order to understand where we’re at, and to focus our efforts going forward.”

Historically, Grant County has never done groundwater testing to the level of establishing a baseline of information. Schweikert said that there had been some local testing at times, and some testing for atrazine, but no concerted push across the county.

Schweikert noted there is currently a waiting list with CWSE for projects to be scheduled in 2018. “We’re on the waiting list for 2018, and we will definitely start testing in 2019,” Schweikert said.

Grant County does not plan to offer a cost-share for the well water testing, so it will be the responsibility of well owners to pay for the testing. The county is choosing to work with the Stevens Point group because of the numerous benefits of doing so for landowners and the county.

Stevens Point program

CWSE offers three different testing packages at rates that are very cost effective. The three packages are the Homeowner, Metals and Diaminochlorotriazine or DACT tests. The county or township is responsible for organizing distribution of the testing bottles, which are supplied by CWSE.

The ‘Homeowner’ is the basic package. This package includes the two most important tests to perform regularly on a rural well - bacteria and nitrate.

CWSE’s website says you should consider the ‘Metals’       package if you have never had your well tested for arsenic, you are experiencing problems with staining, previous tests indicated the presence of arsenic, or your plumbing system has components that contain copper or lead.

They say you should consider the ‘DACT Screen’ package if your well is within one-quarter-mile of agricultural fields where corn has been grown, or previous tests indicated elevated levels of nitrate likely caused by agricultural fertilizers.

But the best part is what the landowner and community receive back from CWSE.

“We don’t just send you a piece of paper with a lot of confusing numbers on it,” CWSE Outreach Specialist Mike Michenich said. “Once the results are completed, we travel to the community to provide a report about the results, and to meet with individual landowners to help interpret the results and brainstorm abatement strategies if they are needed.”

Michenich emphasized that even if you want to ultimately test throughout an entire county, CWSE recommends tackling just two or three townships at a time.

“If you proceed this way, it keeps it more local and has proven to be more popular,” Michenich explained.

Michenich went on to explain that if testing were done within a township, a good goal would be to test 10-15 percent of the wells, with perhaps 40-50 homeowners participating. He also emphasized that timing matters, with better results available in the spring or the fall.

“Bacteria in the water has a preferred environment just like every other living thing,” Michenich said. “In the winter when things are frozen or in the summer when it gets dry, testing results are likely to be less representative.”

Michenich pointed to a recent project in Chippewa County where very good results were obtained as a great example of how to conduct a groundwater inventory. In the county program, 500 wells in the county were all tested at the same time.

“Taking this approach gives you a very good dataset, and allows for good analysis,” Michenich said. “Now, Chippewa County is well-positioned going forward to be able to measure and evaluate improvements and problems, and make plans for county conservation initiatives.”

Kickapoo Valley

Crawford County updated its LWRMP in 2016; Vernon in 2013; Richland was due for an update in 2017, but has obtained a five-year extension; and Monroe County will update their LWRMP in 2018. Vernon County will soon approach the deadline for the five-year update to their plan.

County Conservationists from all four Kickapoo River Valley counties seem to agree that developing a baseline inventory of groundwater quality is a good idea. They all also agree that lack of a cost-share program is a major barrier to getting the job done.

Crawford County Conservationist David Troester noted that the county has never conducted a countywide inventory of groundwater assets.

“We used to have a machine right here in the county that could be used to test well water,” Troester said. “We discontinued its use, however, when we became concerned about the county’s potential liability with providing the information to landowners. Now, we just tell them to send their samples to the state lab.”

Vernon County Conservationist Ben Wojahn was formerly involved with a groundwater-testing program in Taylor County, using funding from the Ho Chunk Nation.

“I would love to see a groundwater baseline testing initative here in the county, but don’t quite know how to tackle it without some kind of cost-share dollars,” Wojahn said.

A producer-led watershed group in the county, Tainter Creek Watershed Council (TCWC), recently applied for a $40,000 DATCP Producer-Led Watershed Grant.

“I was notified by the DATCP that they had received grant applications for almost three times the dollars they had available,” said Matt Emslie of Valley Stewardship Network, who helped to write the grant application. “They asked if TCWC would be interested in a smaller grant amount, and we said we would.”

Unfortunately, DATCP asked the group to remove plans for a cost-share program for groundwater testing, as well as travel to conferences for farmer-members of the group. The group applied for $40,000 and was awarded $13,000.

Richland County Conservationist Cathy Cooper said that, like Crawford and Vernon, Richland County has never done a systematic inventory of groundwater countywide.

“About five years ago we offered a testing program to the townships,” Cooper said. “We started out with participation rates of 40-50 households, but eventually it dropped off and then petered out.”

Cooper said that the county’s biggest response had come from the areas of the county adjacent to the Wisconsin River.

Monroe County Conservationist Bob Micheel said that the last most extensive look at groundwater quality in the county was in the early 1990s in a couple of watersheds along the border with Vernon County, and in the Lake Tomah watershed. The testing was done through the DNR Non-Point Watershed Program.

“We consistently see more problems in the northern part of the county where the soils are sandier,” Micheel said. “In the work done in the early ‘90s, we didn’t see many problems in the Middle Kickapoo Watershed, but did see some areas with high nitrates in the Lake Tomah watershed.”