DRIFTLESS - Sara Strassman, Trout Unlimited Driftless Area Restoration Effort (TUDARE) program manager made a presentation to members of the Coulee Region Trout Unlimited chapter in LaCrosse on Wednesday, Oct. 19. Strassman took over the job in July from 16-year veteran Jeff Hastings.
“Taking this job is kind of bringing me full circle back to the small watersheds,” Strassman told the group. “Prior to this, I worked for WDNR on the Mississippi River doing water quality and sediment work, and co-managing the commercial navigation system, and before that I did dam removal work.”
Strassman said that she grew up fishing in Michigan, and “remains a bait fisher.” She said that her family does most of their fishing in Michigan, while vacationing and visiting with family.
Strassman detailed for the group what her priorities will be for Driftless Area trout fisheries in her new role. She said that some of the key opportunities she hopes to develop include working with municipalities on water quality trading projects, supporting development of managed grazing and regenerative agriculture, developing new partnerships in other recreation groups, and work with new techniques in the headwaters of streams.
“Of course, our focus on brook trout habitat and creating greater stream resilience in the face of greater flows from storm events will continue,” Strassman said. “We also continue to incorporate habitat for nongame species in our projects as those species have also been impacted by climate change.”
Strassman said she has been meeting with various agencies to develop a better understanding of what Trout Unlimited’s role in helping municipalities achieve phosphorous standards through streambank restoration projects could be.
“Achievement of the phosphorous standards for small municipalities is too expensive for them to accomplish through infrastructure development,” Strassman explained. “For this reason, streambank restoration projects are a very cost effective option and represent a real opportunity in the watersheds.”
Strassman said she is also looking for funding and opportunities to partner with municipalities on inventories of crossings. She cited the work Monroe County had done in the last several years as groundbreaking, and described the data they’ve developed about fish passage issues with crossings in their county as crucial to be able to design projects and secure funding for them.
“Habitat fragmentation is a significant issue for our trout fisheries,” Strassman said. “With all the infrastructure funding coming down the pike from the federal government, this is a real opportunity for counties and municipalities, and a real opportunity to make a difference in our trout fisheries.”
Strassman said that many local governments are beginning to take a more proactive approach to crossing replacements, and building in more natural patterns for stream systems. She said that one good partner in this work is FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Assistance.
Strassman detailed what the current stressors are that threaten healthy streams and trout fisheries in the Driftless Region. Among those, she cited climate change, increased flows in large rain events, increasing numbers of days over 90 degrees in a year, increase of nights above 70 degrees in a year, and warmer winters.
She said that models from Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Impacts (WICI) indicate that a hotter and wetter future is in store for the Driftless Region. She said that WICI projects that days over 90 degrees are expected to increase from less than 20 in 1981-2010, to 40 or more in 2041-2060. In the same time frame, nighttime temperatures above 70 degrees will increase from five in 1981-2010 to 15-20 days per year in 2041-2060. Days with a temperature below 32 degrees will decrease from 140-160 days in 1981-2010 to 120-140 days in 2041-2060. Last, days where a rainfall of greater than four inches occurs are expected to increase from 6-10 in 1981-2010 to 10-12 days in 2041-2060.
“Our systems are going to have to weather the large water flows that we’re increasingly seeing from storm events,” Strassman said. “We need to give our watersheds more capacity to move water and sediment, and more capacity to recover.”
Strassman also cited nutrient loading in stream systems, and lack of criteria for nutrient levels, as being a significant concern.
“Chloride concentrations in our streams is an increasing trend, and not something that is easily reversible,” Strassman warned. “We need to get out in front of this and do everything we can to try and reverse this trend.”
She pointed to work in the State of Minnesota, where efforts to convert use of road salts to a brine system were their first priority. After that, she said, their focus is on fertilizers and water softening systems.
“We’ve also had good things happening with phosphorous since passage of the Clean Water Act, and want to see that trend continue,” Strassman said. “Unfortunately, we have not seen a corresponding reduction in nitrate in our systems.”
Nitrate she explained persists in the system, and is especially a problem in the groundwater-fed cold water trout streams like we see in the Driftless Region. She said that one problem TUDARE could tackle through advocacy is to pursue the setting of state-level criteria for concentrations of nitrate in surface waters.
Strassman pointed out that the Driftless Region has over 600 cold water streams with over 4,000 miles of trout fishing available. The trout fishing industry is estimated to produce over $1.6 billion annually into the economies of the Driftless Region composed of unglaciated or little glaciated areas in Southwest Wisconsin, Southeast Minnesota, Northeast Iowa and Northwest Illinois.
“We have seen 150-200 year of agricultural impacts to the watersheds of the Driftless Region at this point,” Strassman detailed. “From plowing up and down the slope, to land clearing and ditching and straightening of streams, these practices have all taken a toll on our trout fisheries.”
Strassman said the result has been head cutting in watershed headwaters, ditching and depositions of sediment on the valley floors.
“Many streams still carry scars and are recovering,” Strassman pointed out. “All that sediment that has raised the floodplain and disconnected streams from their floodplains only moves out of the system when we have large storm systems that dump rainfall and cause runoff.”
Strassman said that the work of TUDARE is to access funding and science to address this legacy sedimentation, and help local communities to become more resilient while protecting the trout fishing resource that contributes so much to local economies.