LOWER WISCONSIN RIVERWAY - It seems science carried the day in the election of new executive leadership for the Friends of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway (FLOW). Retired DNR freshwater biologist Dave Marshall was elected to serve as vice president of the organization at their March 2 board meeting.
Marshall is a member of the FLOW Science Team, and had served on the board in years past. Along with Marshall, Timm Zumm was elected to serve as president of the board, and Patrick Michaels of the Savanna Institute was elected to the treasurer’s position.
No member of the board stepped forward or was nominated for the position of board secretary. The board is actively seeking an individual to fill that role, which need not be a member of the board. They are also seeking volunteers to assist with a review of the bylaws, a technology advisor and a field trip coordinator.
Field trip plans
FLOW Activity Committee Chair Don Golembiewski reported that there are currently two field trips on the calendar for 2022, with more in the works. Those two field trips are:
• Tour of effigy mounds in the Muscoda area of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway, led by Lower Wisconsin State Riverway Board (LWSRB) Executive Director Mark Cupp. Participants will gather at the LWSRB offices on Saturday, April 2, at 9 a.m. A rain/snow date of April 9 has also been announced.
• Electroshocking of fish below the Prairie du Sac Dam with Science Team member, retired DNR fisheries biologist John Lyons. The event will take place on Friday, June 17, with a rain date of July 8. More details will be available soon.
Other field trips in the planning phase include:
• Birding in the Riverway with Jennifer Lanzendorf
• Dark Sky Experience in the Riverway with John Heasley
• Walking tour of the Spring Green Preserve
Dave Marshall reported that FLOW had been successful in two grant applications made to the Prairie du Sac Dam Aquatic Resources Enhancement Fund. The group will receive $44,650 for a project for the Lake Chubsucker to repopulate the species above the Prairie du Sac dam, where populations have declined.
They also have been awarded a grant to study populations of the Banded Killifish in Lake Wisconsin, an area where the Eastern Banded Killifish has been native, but not previously observed in abundance.
“Like the Starhead Topminnow, the Lake Chubsucker is found in the backwater sloughs and oxbow lakes of the Lower Wisconsin River,” Marshall explained. “Because of nitrate pollution from agricultural sources, those populations have been declining in recent years.”
Marshall said that the process with the Lake Chubsucker will be similar to the one the group employed with their Starhead Topminnow project. He said that in late April, their team will begin to go out into the sloughs and back waters to collect fish, which will be transported to a pond on Marshall’s property. He said the group will need to collect enough fish from enough different locations to ensure the genetic diversity of the population to be raised in the pond.
“The collection process will involve using a long-handled mesh net from a boat,” Marshall explained. “The Lake Chubsucker is a slower growing species than the Starhead Topminnow, so we likely won’t be releasing any into Lake Wisconsin until 2023.”
Marshall said that both the Starhead Topminnow and Lake Chubsucker are fish species not typically studied by Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) because they are non-game fish. However, he explained, they are an important part of the community of life in the Riverway.
“We are currently experiencing the sixth extinction right now, and losing species, including aquatic species, at an alarming rate,” Marshall explained. “These species are worth preserving in their own right, but in addition, the more species we lose, the less stable the eco-system is.”
Marshall explained that prior to 2009, significant populations of Banded Killifish had not been observed in Lake Wisconsin, but in recent years have grown. The species, once abundant in the southeast area of Wisconsin has seen a serious decline in recent years, which Marshall attributes to the development of lakefront property, as well as increasing pollution. That development often involves removal of weeds in shallow areas near shore, which is the habitat of the fish.
“We plan to use netting and electroshocking near the shore in some of the less developed backwater areas of the lake, to attempt to identify the relative abundance of the species and its distribution in the Lake Wisconsin system,” Marshall said. “One question we’d like to answer is why the species seems to be thriving in areas of Lake Wisconsin, while it is declining elsewhere.”
Marshall emphasized that changes in agricultural production in areas adjacent to the Lower Wisconsin River since the early 2000s has been polluting groundwater, and delivering ever-increasing levels of nitrate into the system. He says that this is degrading the water quality of the sloughs and oxbow lakes where species such as Starhead Topminnow and Lake Chubsucker live.
“Before the 1970s the Wisconsin River was very polluted from the paper industry upriver,” Marshall said. “When the Clean Water Act (CWA) was passed, the water quality in the river began to improve rapidly.”
Marshall said that the Lower Wisconsin River, being more distant from the paper mills had suffered less from this legacy pollution. He said that in the 1990s, working for the WDNR, he had sampled the water in the sloughs and oxbows of the Riverway, and had found them to be virtually pristine.
“The Lower Wisconsin Riverway has been recognized as a RAMSR Wetland of International Significance, in part because the aquifers in the Driftless Region have always protected it through an abundant supply of clean, cold water,” Marshall said. “It’s ironic now, that having survived pollution prior to enactment of the CWA, it should now be threatened by the same area that previously protected it.”
Marshall said that a combination of United States Geological Survey (USGS) groundwater monitoring wells, as well as FLOW Science Team wells, had documented changes in levels of nitrates coming into the system, starting in the early 2000s. Marshall attributes this change to the increase in that time frame of larger agricultural producers growing corn for ethanol or spreading larger amounts of liquid manure from confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs).
“These large operations are all being supported by farm subsidies, and State of Wisconsin enforcement of the provisions of the Clean Water Act is being violated by allowing these producers to pollute our water,” Marshall said. “Nitrate pollution in the Lower Wisconsin Riverway is threatening the very biodiversity that was recognized by the RAMSR designation – it’s ironic.”
In other business
In other business, the board:
• heard that no word has come from Dane County about whether a sampling project at a borrow pit in the Riverway will be funded
• heard that the project to obtain life vests and new signs for the ‘Kids Don’t Float’ kiosks is going well
• heard that the Safety Committee will meet next week with Iowa County Emergency Management and WDNR about adding QR codes to signs in the Riverway alerting users to the availability of the safety text alert
• heard that 23 people had taken advantage of the free FLOW membership offer, with more trickling in
• heard that the treasurer will work with a small group and an attorney to further refine FLOW’s fiscal policy
• heard that FLOW will consider development of an anti-bullying policy that is not urgent, but would be nice to have• heard that the next meeting of the FLOW Board will take place on April 21, starting at 6 p.m., and may be an in-person meeting. For more information about location of the next meeting, check FLOW's website at https://www.wisconsinriverfriends.org