LOWER WISCONSIN RIVERWAY - The Friends of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway (FLOW) gave the 2022 ‘Riverway Champion’ award to John Lyons, a member of the FLOW Science Team. The award was conferred at the group’s annual meeting, held virtually on Saturday, Feb. 5.
John Lyons began his career with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR), working as a fisheries research biologist, in 1984. He had come to Wisconsin to pursue graduate work in 1979 at UW-Madison in the Limnology Department. Limnology is the study of the biological, chemical, and physical features of lakes and other bodies of fresh water.
“My love for the Lower Wisconsin River began during my years of study at UW-Madison, when I would hear about the Lower Wisconsin River,” Lyons remembered. “I decided to go out on the river, and was absolutely astounded with its beauty and biological diversity. It quickly became a favorite spot for me.”
Lyons said that the wide, sand-bottomed, shallow river was absolutely astonishing to him. He said he was used to the narrow, deep, fast-flowing rivers of his native New York. He told the group that, in his long career, he has worked on lakes and rivers all over America, but that the Wisconsin River is his favorite.
“It is a great honor to receive this award from FLOW,” Lyons said. “The Wisconsin River has been a big part of my life for the last 40 years, and it has been a pleasure to work with FLOW, WDNR, and all the people that love the river.”
Lyons remembered when the legislation was passed in 1989, creating the Lower Wisconsin Riverway. He said that passage of that legislation protecting the river had been very meaningful for him.
“I love every aspect of the river, from the off channel sloughs and lakes, to the main channel,” Lyons said. “I’ve experienced the river in spring flood, summer drought, in it’s autumn splendor, and even in winter, when it is covered in ice floes.”
The Riverway extends 92.3 miles from below the dam at Prairie du Sac to the confluence with the Mississippi River near Prairie du Chien, and encompasses 95,893 acres. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is responsible for administering a land acquisition program within the project boundaries.
Lyons earned his PhD from UW-Madison in 1984, having done most of his graduate research work on lakes in Vilas County. He was hired soon after graduation in 1984 by WDNR to work on the Wisconsin River.“The Wisconsin River is paradise for a fisheries biologist, and it was a spectacular place to be able to work,” Lyons said. “Though a lot of my work on the river was dedicated to game fish, what really intrigued me about the river was the diversity of species it contained, including rare species like eels that had made their way into the river from the Sargasso Sea, and the iconic Riverway species, the paddlefish.”
Lyons told meeting participants about different experiences he’d had on the river over the years, helping to publicize how special it is. He said that he valued the opportunity to reach the public with positive messages about the river, and how important it is that it be protected. He remembered one photo shoot with a team from National Geographic, who were doing a special about paddlefish, and wanted to film them in their natural habitat.
“Over the years, it has been wonderful to work with FLOW, and see good things getting done,” Lyons said. “I’ve always been impressed with the breadth of FLOW’s work and interests in the Riverway, beyond just the river itself and the fish, they’ve worked on and brought attention to a broad spectrum of important topics, from spiders to agroforestry to water quality monitoring.”
Lyons said that he was particularly proud of a project the FLOW Science Team had taken on to preserve a rare and threatened species in the river – the Starhead Topminnow. Lyons had worked on the project with science team members Dave Marshall and Jean Unmuth, as well as other FLOW volunteers.
“Dave Marshall was the one who recognized that this species, which inhabits the sloughs and channel lakes, was in decline due to water quality issues related to agricultural practices on the river terraces and nitrate leaching through the shallow, sandy, groundwater system,” Lyons said. “Dave raised thousands of the fish in a pond on his rural property, and we were able to successfully reintroduce the species in the river, above the dam at Prairie du Sac.”
Funding of $90,900 was received from the Prairie du Sac Dam Aquatic Resources Enhancement Fund for the project over the course of four years, and a total of five scientists worked on the project.
To learn more about the project, visit the Friends of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway website.
Lyons said the science team wants to try the same thing with other threatened species in the Riverway system such as the Lake Chubsucker. Marshall has recently applied for a grant from the committee that administers the Prairie du Sac Dam mitigation fund, created to offset the unavoidable impacts of the hydroelectric dam. That committee consists of representatives from Alliant Energy, U.S. Fish & Wildlife, WDNR and the River Alliance of Wisconsin. Marshall has applied for $44,650 to pursue this project. Applicants will be notified about the grants in March of 2022.
Reached after the meeting, Lyons explained that about $27,000 per year is placed into the fund, and that historically, there had been a lack of funding proposals, meaning that funds had accumulated in the account held by the Natural Resources Foundation.
He said that the Lake Chubsucker is a ‘species of interest’ for WDNR, and had essentially disappeared in the river above the Prairie du Sac dam. He attributed this decline to a combination of factors. One factor was legacy pollution in the river system in the 50s and 60s from paper mills, and the other is natural fluctuation in the species due to temperature variations.
“The Wisconsin River is at the northern edge of the range of the Lake Chubsucker,” Lyons explained. “Before the dams were built, if you got a warmer year, the species would expand its range further up the river, and then in a colder year, that range would shrink. Now, with the dams, if the species dies out above the dam, it can’t expand back into that range when conditions are more favorable.”
Lyons said that if grant funding is received, he and other members of the FLOW Science Team would undertake a project with the Lake Chubsucker similar to the one recently successfully completed with the Starhead Topminnow.
Lyons said they have also applied for another $15,000 grant to study a population of banded killifish that has been identified in Lake Wisconsin where the species is never known to have existed before.
“This is the only population of this fish known to exist in the Wisconsin River system, though the species can be found elsewhere in Wisconsin,” Lyons said. “We want to investigate to help determine if this is a native population, or if it has been introduced into the system through bait buckets or some other mechanism. Ultimately, our goal would be to develop some kind of management plan for the species.”
Both at their board meeting that took place on Wednesday, Feb. 2, and their annual meeting on Saturday, Feb. 5, the FLOW board and membership approved changes in the FLOW Board of Directors.
At the February 2 board meeting, longtime board member and former Riverway Champion Award recipient Ned Hodgson announced that he was stepping down from the board, and that would take effect immediately following the meeting. Board president Don Golembiewski thanked Hodgson for his many years of service.
Golembiewski had worked prior to the board meeting with Jennifer Moore-Kerr and Timm Zumm on a board nominating committee. Their recommendations of Patrick Michaels, Susan Graham, and Allyson Scoien were approved by the board. Following Hodgson’s resignation, Dave Marshall of the FLOW Science Team was also appointed to the board.
Michaels lives in the Lowery Creek Watershed, on the south side of the river, just outside of Spring Green, and works with the Savanna Institute, serving as CEO of their newly founded Agroforestry business ‘Canopy.’
Allyson Scoien owns a property along the river, on Long Lake. That property is the location of some of the FLOW Science Team water monitoring wells.
Dave Marshall, a retired WDNR freshwater biologist, is a member of the FLOW Science Team, and had previously served on the board.
Susan Graham, who was unable to attend the meetings due to family issues has assisted the Science Team in applying for grants to conduct their research.
The board, as Golembiewski pointed out, can have as few as three and as many as nine board members. Following the board meeting, there were a total of nine board members. Those nine were president Don Golembiewski, treasurer Jennifer Lanzendorf, Chuck Rathmann, Dave Krueger, Jennifer Moore-Kerr, Susan Graham, Patrick Michaels, Allyson Scoien, and Dave Marshall.
At the annual meeting the following Saturday, board member Jennifer Moore-Kerr announced her retirement, and Golembiewski took nominations for the board from the floor. Science Team members Jean Unmuth moved, and John Lyons seconded, a proposal to nominate River Safety Committee Co-Chair Timm Zumm for the board. Zumm was affirmed by the membership to sit on the board.
Zumm is one of the co-founders of FLOW, and has provided years of service to the organization.
Per the FLOW bylaws, the board will vote on board officer positions for 2022 at their next meeting in March.
In other business
In other business at the Wednesday, Feb. 2, FLOW board meeting, the board:
• heard that the board is seeking a newsletter and e-news editor, assistance with updating their bylaws, a technology adviser, and a field trips coordinator
• heard from Science Committee chair Jean Unmuth that the application to WDNR for grant funds to conduct a study on a borrow pit in the Riverway along Highway 78 had been rejected, and that Dave Marshall has applied to Dane County for funding. Unmuth said that such a study would normally cost about $20,000, but that costs would be minimal due to Science Team members donating their time. She said that if Dane County does not fund the study, the committee might request $600 in funding to pay for the cost of water chemistry testing through the Wisconsin State Lab of Hygiene
• heard from River Safety Committee co-chair Dave Krueger that they have asked WDNR for new signs for the ‘Kids Don’t Float’ kiosks at the total of 15 boat landings in the Lower Wisconsin Riverway. He said he was optimistic that WDNR would provide the signs
• heard that the fiscal reimbursement for travel would be $0.55 per mile for transporting life vests between kiosks, that there would be a $100 limit for purchases, and that meals and expenses for travel would need to be approved by the board in advance
• heard that FLOW will now have a ‘voice over internet protocol’ (VOIP) phone number.
In other business at the annual meeting, the membership:
• heard that FLOW had supported Iowa County Emergency Management in development of a River Safety Text Alert system, where river users could sign up for text alerts while on the river by texting ‘77295’ with ‘river’ in the message. River Safety co-chair Timm Zumm reported that Iowa County is working with other county emergency management directors all up and down the Riverway on the safety feature, and they would like to make a presentation about the alert system to the FLOW board
• heard that board member Chuck Rathmann had worked with Carl’s Paddlin’ to add them to the list of FLOW Riverbiz partners who offer FLOW members discounts
• heard from treasurer Jennifer Lanzendorf that FLOW started 2021 with a balance of $7,944.45, received $6,600 in donations, had expenses of $6,809.83, and ended 2021 with $7,734.62. She said that some of the balance is funds FLOW holds for the Sauk County Conservation Alliance
• heard that $1,395.32 (21 percent) of 2021 expenses had been spent on activities, programs and events; $619.96 (nine percent) on membership expenses; $2,479.55 (36 percent) on software and utilities; $1,700 (25 percent) on donations, grants and honorariums (river text alert donation); and $615 (nine percent) on business expenses
• heard that in 2021, the membership list included 160 people, with 800 people on the e-mail list, and thousands of views on FLOW’s Facebook page; and that effective immediately, FLOW 2022 memberships would be available free of charge due to financial hardships in the pandemic• heard that board member Chuck Rathmann had invested in a company that was seeking to offer fishing tackle made from tin bismuth, as an alternative to lead tackle, which can have an adverse impact on wildlife in the Riverway.