Twelve years of significant volunteer effort, guided by Valley Stewardship Network’s small staff, has afforded both local residents and the state a more comprehensive view of the Kickapoo River watershed’s health.
VSN is a Viroqua-based non-profit group dedicated to preserving the quality of life in the Kickapoo watershed. The organization recently released their compiled data and analysis in a 300-page report titled “Kickapoo River Watershed Assessment-2000 to 2010.”
The results are varied, with many area streams showing little or no degradation, while others show signs of nutrient and bacteriological impairments due to human activity. Collected data showed stream pollution levels ranged from “unlikely” to “very significant.” Most local streams were listed in the “slight” to “unlikely” pollution category.
Both individual stewardship efforts and those made by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources are having a positive effect, according to VSN. However, the work is incomplete at this point. The organization indicated that it has plans to continue efforts to protect local water resources well into the future.
“With the assessment (completed), we will be able to start focusing on the gaps in our knowledge,” said Katya Leonard, the Water Quality Program Manager at VSN. “And we continue to develop our programs to address water quality- through water monitoring; through our ‘Rural Lands’ manual and stewardship education efforts; and through the ‘Food and Farm Initiative.’ Water quality is very dependent on proper land management. And, clean water is something we all need.”
As the report states, it took the extraordinary commitment of citizen monitors to make the assessment possible. Nearly 50 volunteer water quality monitors (WQM) work with VSN to collect data.
Monitors are trained through the Water Action Volunteer Program, a statewide program coordinated by the DNR and the University of Wisconsin-Cooperative Extension. Data is collected at three levels.
Level one monitors measure dissolved oxygen, temperature, transparency, flow rates and nitrite/nitrate levels. They also take surveys of stream habitat and macroinvertebrates (mayflies, aquatic bugs and beetles, etc.)
The diversity of macroinvertebrates is used as an indicator in evaluating the health condition of any body of water. The level of life found in streams, lakes and ponds is a direct measurement of the cumulative impact of chemical, physical and biological stressors.
Volunteers who have participated for at least one year in monitoring can become level two monitors. Using more sophisticated equipment, these volunteers are able to provide data used both by VSN and the DNR. Level two monitors check their streams using continuous temperature monitoring devices, called thermistors. The thermistors are placed in the stream and record temperature every hour. Level two monitors also use meters for monitoring pH and dissolved oxygen.
The third level is an event-driven monitoring effort that checks levels of nutrients such as phosphorus, nitrogen, and ammonia, plus harmful bacteria.
Data collected through Level-I and Level-II WQM establishes baseline measures of watershed health. Such baselines are critical for determining how various types of land use affect the watershed.
Agricultural production and urban runoff are the primary causes of water pollution in Wisconsin. In cases of manure spills or flooding, event-driven monitoring is used to quickly test nearby waterways to determine how the event has affected watershed health.
“We definitely need more volunteers, in our watershed and adjacent watersheds,” Leonard added.
While volunteers may come and go, a few have been at this since it began.
The monitoring experience has a meditative quality to it, according to Dave Hackett, a level two monitor. Hackett and his partner Ellen Brooks have been involved since 2000.
“It’s fascinating to be able to look back at what you have found,” Hackett said. “Once a year we do a habitat assessment (as part of the WQM program) because streams change.
“We had to move our monitoring site after five or six years because a storm changed the terrain of the stream,” Hackett explained. “You need a spot relatively easy to reach with a riffle. Just above the riffle will be a calm spot where you take water samples. Twice a year, you check the riffle for macroinvertebrates.”
Riffles are shallow rocky shoals that agitate the moving water, increasing oxygen in the water and making it more favorable to small living creatures.
“You don’t have to have high waders, but ones that go over the knee are useful,” Hackett added. “You won’t see anything in the stream, not even fish. But then you turn over the rocks and you may find ten different species.”
WQM is where VSN began their efforts to address water quality in the Kickapoo Watershed. However, a number of other programs have been developed over the years.
The Farm and Food Initiative seeks to foster a sustainable, local food system that supports family farms and improves access to healthy foods.
The connection between family farming, local foods and water may not be immediately apparent, but as VSN Board Co-chair Cynthia Olmstead points out, “environmental protection and agriculture are interconnected.”
Agricultural runoff is the single largest source of water pollution in the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency. In the 2000 National Water Quality Inventory conducted by the EPA, agricultural activity was identified as a source of pollution for 48-percent of stream and river water, and for 41-percent of lake water.
The major source of that pollution appears to come from animal waste originating on large farms. So VSN believes that supporting smaller farms that are more integrated into their local community helps create a greater investment on both sides of the food chain, grower and purchaser, to protect water resources.
“This involves many different types of people working together,” Olmstead explained. “It’s a win-win situation. Either way you participate, you are helping the other accomplish the goal.”
VSN also conducts mussel monitoring and aquatic invasive species monitoring.
The mussel monitoring is an educational outreach program run in conjunction with the DNR. Over half of Wisconsin’s 51 native mussel species (also known as clams) are either listed as a species ‘of greatest conservation need’ because they have low or declining populations or are as yet inadequately documented, therefor a determination of their status cannot be made without more research.
The aquatic invasive species monitoring is coordinated with the River Alliance. Wisconsin’s rivers are vulnerable to invasion by a number of species from Eurasian milfoil to Japanese knotweed. Aquatic invasive species monitoring allows plants to be identified, isolated and, if possible, eliminated.
Thus far, VSN has been funded through opportunity grants, according to Olmstead. As they move into the future, they hope to formalize their programs and begin creating a sustainable funding structure that allows them to stay fully committed to their work.
“It’s amazing to see this report, to think of how many volunteers we have. We are very volunteer driven,” Olmstead said.
However, there is still a small staff to pay to provide the expertise, which turns all that volunteer effort into something coherent and useful like the recently completed assessment.
To learn more, become involved with VSN as a volunteer, donate or join, contact them at 608-637-3615 or by email at
You can also learn more about VSN online at www.kickapoovsn.org.
The full assessment may be viewed at http://www.kickapoovsn.org/programs/water-quality-monitoring/watershed-assessment.