Begin by imagining that you are sitting by a stream – perhaps for a picnic, perhaps with plans to fish – and looking into the clear water running across rocks and gravel of different sizes you see, here and there, small patches of aquatic plants with a tenuous hold in the rushing, cold water. Occasionally a fish darts into view, perhaps settling beside a larger rock for a moment as it rests or hunts for food. Looking closer, you see small invertebrates (snails, insect nymphs and larva) or perhaps the eggs of a trout clustered in the gravel. You hear a splash and turn your head in time to see a small pickerel frog swimming in the water, or perhaps a belted kingfisher with a small fish in its mouth.
You see all of this because you are sitting next to a clean, healthy Driftless stream.
Sadly, these are an endangered sight. The rate at which our waters are being impaired by non-point source pollution is faster than the rate at which we are restoring or remediating those waters already damaged, according to Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources water quality biologist Jim Amrhein. The good news, he says, is that we can do something about it if we choose to cooperate. And doing so has long-term economic advantages, not only for our farmers, but also for our economy as a whole.
What is the problem?
The impaired state of our area water is a problem stemming from how we use our lands, increasingly severe weather incidents, and the cumulative impact of choices made by individual landowners over the years since the region was first settled by lumberjacks, farmers, merchants and more.
To understand it, begin by contrasting the opening paragraph with what we are all too accustomed to seeing – cloudy water, silted stream bottoms, algae. Hidden right in front of our eyes are other problems – too much phosphorus and nitrogen, and missing oxygen.
“There are two fronts to how our area streams are being impacted,” says Dr. Kris Wright, a biologist and department chair at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. “There is the fine particle sediment (silt) entering the water and the nutrient and fertilizer runoff.”
And they are linked, Wright notes, since nutrients entering the waterway bind with the sediments washing into the stream, so that they don’t simply wash down the stream and accumulate in other waterways – which they do, but more on that later.
Right now, we can stand in the impaired stream and look uphill to see where the silt and nutrient runoff is coming from. And this is what makes it a non-point source pollution issue. There is no one place causing pollution; there are many places.
It may be a homeowner with a pristine yard. Not a dandelion or plantain or creeping Charley in sight. It’s perfect because they spray it with weed killers and use fertilizers to promote grass growth. But when it rains, those chemicals wash downhill.
It may be the farmer who just sprayed fertilizers or spread manure (solid or liquid) only to have it rain before that manure or fertilizer has been fully integrated into plants and soil
It can be the freshly plowed field, ready for planting, from which rain or melting snow is running downhill, carrying bits of topsoil.
And so on and on the list goes. Bare soil washes away. Our applications of chemicals and organic material can wash away too. It all runs downhill to the stream below.
“Any time you get more nutrients, you get more macrophytes and algae,” Wright says.
Those macrophytes are the aquatic plants at the beginning of the story of which there were only a few. But now, in the stream with a silted bottom and extra nutrients, there are a lot of them, along with slicks of algae that you didn’t see before.
“They overtake the habitat and cover the valuable features, the gravel and rocks, and they cause the oxygen levels in the water to fluctuate,” Wright explains.
The macrophytes add more oxygen during the day, but at night, the algae starts sucking that oxygen out of the water. That in turn creates stress that increasingly limits what can live in the stream. If the algae takes over, almost nothing lives.
While the sediment may be helping to hold the nutrients in place longer, they are still continuing downstream.
“The cumulative impact increases as the waters flow into each other,” says Dr. Roger Haro, a professor of biology at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse specializing the connectivity of freshwater ecosystems and the consequences of non-point source pollution. “We are in one of the biggest water basin systems in the world.”
What flows from a hill in the Driftless region is headed to the Mississippi River ultimately, and from there on to the Gulf of Mexico.
That means the nutrient and sediments washing off our hills collects along the way with the runoff from every other state connecting to the Mississippi River, either directly or through tributaries. All of that sediment and nutrient runoff heads south where each year it is helping to create a growing dead (hypoxic) zone in the Gulf of Mexico. The hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico, the second largest worldwide, was first noted in the 1970s, and continuing to grow.
Hypoxic zones do occur naturally, but the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is man-made. The sediments and nutrients create an algal bloom that sucks so much oxygen out of the water that other ocean organisms cannot live there any longer.
But we don’t have to go that far to see important changes to the Big Muddy.
“We are lucky enough to live next to a part of the Mississippi River that is still accessible,” Haro points out.
If you travel into the backwaters, the blue green “pond scum” alga that indicates excess phosphorus and nitrogen is ubiquitous. And it has begun to appear in the main channels and streams feeding into the river.
“It is no longer just a backwater issue,” Haro says. “Blue-green alga is a very big issue that’s affecting us directly.”
The inedible blue green algae, known also as Cyanobacteria, is killing fish through both oxygen depletion and toxin production. It is also crowding out plants that are edible, destroying the food web of infected water bodies.
“Algal responses (to increased nutrients in the water) are the most pervasive problems,” explains Haro. “And sediment, well, that is a very serious problem. It’s a double-edged sword. It’s polluting our waters. That is one problem. The other – that is our topsoil. That is the bread and butter of our farmers.”
“Some of what we are dealing with are legacy problems, so even if we fix the problems right now, it is going to be awhile before we see the water system balance restored,” notes Haro. “If you can’t convince every single farmer and landowner to do a better job, it’s incredibly tough to address the problem.”
Follow the money
“People need to be vigilant,” Haro says.
Awareness and action are linked. People have both to understand the problem and to take steps to address it. And that is not just the landowners who need to act, Haro says. Politicians need to be responsive and responsible, too, through legislation and funding.
Funding the programs that help farmers and other property owners to make the changes necessary is required.
Current political policies aren’t recognizing the value of conservation and restoration, in Haro’s opinion.
“A recent report shows almost a billion in revenue comes into the Driftless area due to fishing,” Haro says. “That’s a significant economic impact.”
That fishing related spending helps diversify the economy, which is vital to its health, he points out.
Haro also points to the costs of pollution to landowners and municipalities.
The streams and rivers are a place of exchange with the water reservoirs contained underground.
“What we do on the surface recharges the water below with biological and chemical pollutants that manage to filter through,” Haro says.
It’s not just farming and people living along the river that contribute to that problem. Lawn applications and septic failures are examples of activities that can cause pollution to leach into our ground water. Cumulatively, they can mean individual landowners, businesses, and even municipalities have to drill deeper for their water.
“The economic cost of drilling is prohibitive,” Haro says.
Exacerbating the issue is climate change, which Haro says is increasing the severity of climate events. An example is flooding. Flooding has worsened, in turn moving greater amounts of soil into waterways.
“We have very huge challenges with the hydrological cycle to face,” Haro says. “Carbon is a huge driver of the problem.”
And the worst part, he says, “This is what we are leaving our young with.”
So back to Jim Amrhein mentioned at the beginning of the article. He works at ground zero, as it were, day in and day out. He is involved in assessing stream health, setting priorities, and working to correct the problems.
“The priority for working on a stream is set by not only the severity of the pollutant, but also by how readily correctable it is,” Amrhein says.
The DNR attempted to fund large-scale change about thirty or forty years ago, according to Amrhein. They offered to pay for landowners to do things differently. But the result was scattered. The landowners already inclined to change practices did so. Those that weren’t continued to do as they had always done. And because the changes didn’t happen in connected swaths of land, the impact was minimal.
Now, the focus, Amrhein says, is on working first in sections no larger than 20-miles in diameter where they can get all of the landowners to agree. Then, as those sections are completed, begin working on contiguous sections, gradually piggybacking them together until larger and larger portions of watersheds (the area between ridges directing waters to a particular stream) are restored.
“Grant County can rid itself (of stream pollution) more quickly because of the steep inclines of most of our streams,” says Amrhein.
That is good news for us, since it means we can see some resolution within our lifetime of not only current pollutants, but legacy pollutants, as well. The further downstream, the gentler the incline, the longer the visible correction will take.
“Trying to coordinate all of the landowners in a watershed is very, very difficult,” says Amrhein.
Add to that, a lack of personnel at the DNR to monitor every stream segment. Amrhein says his department is very much dependent upon people reporting problems. And they don’t always.
Those officials most likely to become aware of a land use problem first have reason to be hesitant to report those problems to the DNR, he says. They are the county conservationists, who have to worry about issues of trust with landowners. They need landowners to be willing to communicate with them to do their job of promoting conservation. If you become known as the county conservationist who turns people in to the DNR for land use violations, landowners may well stop sharing information with you, and in turn, lose out on learning about methods and resources that would help them be better stewards of the land.
Nor does the challenges of bureaucracy end there. The process for enforcing compliance with land-use laws already in place to prevent or minimize pollution takes time. Sometimes a lot of time.
“I’ve been involved in sites that take two, three, ten, even twenty years to clean-up,” Amrhein says.
And in an era of slashed natural resource conservation funding, “the caveat is that we have to offer cost sharing,” says Amrhein.
That is good for the landowner, as that it reduces the expense of making changes, but it also means there is a finite dollar limit to how much restoration and prevention can be pursued by the DNR in a year.
And pollution continues to occur, so the rate of impairment appears to be increasing faster than remediation at this point.
“There is no simple answer to what remediation looks like,” Amrhein says.
Every property is different. The DNR, when it works on a site, uses computer modeling to determine the most vulnerable areas. That is determined by the lands susceptibility to erosion, land use, crop rotation, nutrient management plans, etc. From there, they begin to develop steps for remediation.
The best solution, and most cost effective solution, is prevention, Amrhein believes.
He points to the turn of the century when the hills of the Driftless were denuded and massive amounts of soil washed down the hills and into our streams. Then came the 1930s, the Dust Bowl years, and the Soil Conservation Service. The individual states and federal government worked together to fund research into erosion control and to implement a massive education effort to convince farmers to implement the use of contour strips and other soil conservation methods.
Soil conservation takes time to pay off, hence the cost sharing programs to make them more appealing. But with the rising cost of chemical inputs, Amrhein believes farmers have an inherent interest in activities that don’t undermine their long-term livelihood for short-term rewards.
“I don’t know what the next agricultural revolution will be, but I hope it involves no-till agriculture and cover crops,” says Amrhein.
No-till cultivation requires specialized equipment, but it ensures the soil is held in place by root systems at all times. The soil is never bare and exposed. That visually has hidden benefits. Undisturbed soil develops greater carbon content, which in turns fosters greater micro-organism diversity and numbers and increased fertility. Greater fertility = better yields. And in theory, at least, it reduces run-off by reducing both the need for inputs and keeping the soil unexposed.
Ground covers also reduce soil exposure, introduce needed nutrients, reducing the need for chemical inputs, and, because they are tilled in, also build soil carbon and increase soil fertility.
For Grant County, convincing farmers to make changes is where it is at. The vast bulk of the land is owned by farmers.
“Farmers don’t make changes unless it is economically viable, Amrhein says.
He believes that farming which reduces soil loss is key to helping restore our streams and that those steps are quite common sense.
“If you are constantly needing to bulldoze back through your field so you can plant, a stable grassy waterway is the long-term solution, saving you time and money and soil,” Amrhein says.
“It is important for landowners to know that there is cost sharing available for what we really need – long term solutions that treat soil as a biological solution to erosion, to fertility, and to water quality.”