COON CREEK - The Coon Creek Community Watershed Council (CCCWC) recently celebrated the one-year anniversary of its founding. The celebration, attended by over 100 people, took place in the Coon Valley Park on Wednesday, Sept. 7.The event drew participants from across the Driftless Region, gathered to celebrate the renaissance of the flood resilience and soil health movement in the cradle of its founding. In the 1930s, the Coon Creek Watershed was the location of the nation’s first watershed demonstration project, and led by such soil health icons as Hugh Hammond Bennett and Aldo Leopold. That work eventually lead to the formation of today’s USDA-Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS).
Music for the event was provided by Soldiers Grove musician Jay Hoffman. Gays Mills resident and Wisconsin 96th Assembly Democratic candidate Jane Swiggum and her husband Ed attended the event, along with Repesentative Loren Oldenburg and Senator Brad Pfaff. Chuck and Karen Bolstad, along with Berent Foiland were there to represent the Tainter Creek Watershed Council, and numerous members of the Bad Axe River Watershed Council were present as well.
CCCWC vice president Tucker Gretebeck addressed the crowd, following a delicious beef tips supper provided by Legacy Bar & Grill. President Nancy Wedwick was unable to attend the celebration that she had worked so hard to plan due to a family emergency.
“One year ago, a group of citizens met right here in the park, on the banks of Coon Creek, and started this amazing community movement,” Gretebeck said. “We couldn’t have done it without the invaluable assistance of our partners, and from Dr. Monique Hassman in particular.”
Gretebeck told the story of Coon Creek Watershed resident Ernest Haugen, who was a teenager in the 1930s. When asked by a teacher to describe the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) activities taking place on his family’s farm on South Ridge, Haugen replied that the workers were “trying to make running water walk.” Haugen passed about 10 years ago.
“I joined this effort because our community needs to come together to build resilience in the face of the increasingly large and intense rain events like the one in 2018 that breached five flood control dams and caused catastrophic flooding in the Driftless Region,” Gretebeck said. “My personal goal is to do everything I can to infiltrate storm water on my farm on the ridge, and keep it from running off into Coon Creek.”
In their first year, the group has incorporated as a state and federal non-profit, secured a DATCP Producer –Led Watershed Council grant, conducted monthly meetings and education, distributed cover crop funding, launched a communications strategy, and formed partnerships to pursue their vision and mission.
The next meeting of the CCCWC will take place at the farm of Becky and Tucker Gretebeck on Wednesday, Oct. 5, starting at 6 p.m.. Highlights for that meeting will include the carbon sequestration ‘savanna’ project recently installed on the farm, and Becky and Tucker’s famous woodfired pizzas. The farm is located at 7649 Oboe Ave, Cashton, WI 54619.
History and vision
The CCCWC began in 2021 as a response to the disastrous and continued flooding in the Coon Creek Watershed. People in the area came together to discuss what they could do to mitigate the impacts of flooding.
To find answers, the group looked to its roots, historically and literally. In its history, the Coon Creek Watershed had experienced massive soil erosion and flooding in the 1920s and 1930s. So severe had the erosion and flooding become that the government acted, and in 1933, the watershed became the site of the first large-scale conservation demonstration in the nation. As a result of the measures deployed on the landscape from the 1930s through the 1960s, erosion and flooding decreased dramatically, streams cleared, and wildlife returned and flourished.
The groups vision is for a watershed that is nurtured, cherished and flourishing. Their mission is to continue the historic legacy of conservation leadership through improving and restoring their soil, water, and air as stewards.
Their focus is on strategies and practices that individuals can implement. They hope to accomplish this through planning, education, outreach, demonstrations and actions on the ground to reduce soil erosion, improve water quality, and increase the water infiltration capacity of the soils.
These practices include increasing use of permeable surfaces for patios, walks and driveways, building rain gardens, using no-till cover crops, strip cropping, contour strips, crop rotation, grassed waterways, prairie plantings, buffer strips, terraces, managed grazing and grade stabilization structures.
The groups partners include LaCrosse, Monroe and Vernon counties, Valley Stewardship Network, Coon Valley Business Association, Coon Valley Conservation Club, Norskedalen Nature & Heritage Center, UW-Madison, UW-LaCrosse, Tainter Creek Farmer-Led Watershed Council, and Bad Axe Farmer-Led Watershed Council.
Caroline Gottschalk-Druschke and Anna Andrzejewski from the UW-Madison group Greener Pastures attended the celebration. The two talked about their partnership with the watershed council, and the oral history project they are partnering in.
“After the 2018 flood, I led a group of my undergraduate students in the Department of English to capture stories of citizens that had been impacted by the flooding,” Gottschalk-Druschke said. “Now, a new group of students will work in the Coon Creek Watershed to capture the oral history of residents in the watershed relating to flooding and efforts to mitigate its impacts.”
Andrzejewski emphasized that the goal of their work is to facilitate telling the stories of flooding and the stories of a sense of place. She said the compilation of the oral narratives will be called ‘Making Running Water Walk.’
Gottschalk-Druschke said that between Halloween and Thanksgiving, students from her program at UW-Madison would travel to the watershed to meet with residents and transcribe the stories they have to tell.Maggie Traastad, watershed council secretary, described the partnership with Norskedalen Nature & Heritage Center to develop an ‘environmental humanities’ curriculum for use with middle school students.
The featured presentation at the anniversary celebration was provided by USDA-NRCS Assistant State Soil Scientist Andy Paolucci. Paolucci brought a device called a ‘rainfall simulator’ to the event. The device is used to demonstrate the health of the soil in different management systems as evidenced by its ability to infiltrate water and prevent erosion.
“Soil health is really a term that relates to the health of the biology of the soil,” Paolucci explained. “One teaspoon of soil contains more living organisms than there are people in the world, and the exudates that come from the living roots in the soil are what provides the food for that soil microbiology.”
Paolucci said that management practices which increase the soil organic matter increase the amount of water that the soil can infiltrate, and protect the soil from erosion. He said that a one percent increase in soil organic matter equals 300 gallons per acre of water storage.
In the rainfall simulator demonstration, Paolucci and watershed council member Kevin Traastad had gone out and obtained plots of soils from five different management systems - rotationally grazed pasture, continuously grazed pasture, no-till corn/bean rotation with trash, no-till corn/bean rotation with trash and a cereal rye cover crop, and tilled continuous corn.Not surprisingly, the rotationally grazed pasture and the no-till corn/bean rotation with cereal rye cover crop were the best at infiltrating water with the lowest amount of soil erosion. The tilled continuous corn plot had the lowest water infiltration and the highest soil erosion. The continuously grazed pasture, and the no-till corn/bean rotation were in the middle.