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Tainter Creek Watershed Council discusses flooding

CRAWFORD AND VERNON COUNTIES - Amidst all the wet weather, the farmers of the Tainter Creek Watershed Council gathered at the farm of LaVon ‘Spanky’ Felton on Monday, Oct. 8, and seemed happy to be there. Everyone seemed a little worried about the weather-related delays with the harvest and cover crop installation.

At their first meeting since the historic Labor Day floods, the topic of flooding and the flood control dams was naturally a topic of conversation. The group also discussed the logistics of the well water testing program, and distribution of cover crops funds.

Vernon County Conservationist Ben Wojahn started the meeting with an update about the process underway for exploring what the future of the dams is going to be. He discussed what his department must do to get the answers the county needs to make the best decisions.

Thinking about floods

“Obviously, I’ve been thinking about flooding a lot since we last met,” Wojahn said. “What our department needs most in order to position ourselves to take advantage of funding opportunities is mapping of past damages to make data-driven-decisions about where to consider installation of conservation practices for best effect.”

Wojahn explained that every year Vernon County receives funds from the Ho-Chunk Nation. The county is always faced with tough decisions about how to spend those funds. This year, Wojahn has submitted eight proposals for how those funds might be spent. His proposals include expenditures on the Jersey Valley, Mlsna and Swenson dams; upgrades to electricity in some of the county parks; beginning a program of county-wide groundwater testing; and funding of two limited-term positions for the purpose of mapping damages from past flooding events, and making project plans for future installation of conservation practices.

“In the original Coon Creek Watershed project, the watershed was divided into four sections, and each had their own technician,” Wojahn observed. “When we have these warm bodies, then we have more opportunities to take advantage of funding that requires cost share.”

One meeting participant queried Wojahn about whether he sees flood mitigation work as his department’s priority.

“I think there’s no question that flood mitigation has to be a priority for my department,” Wojahn responded. “When I look back on this time 10 years from now, I want to know that at least I asked to have these positions funded.”

There was frank discussion about Vernon County’s finances, so similar to other surrounding counties, where funds are tight and tough decisions have to be made. The decision to either repair or abandon the dams, for instance, is going to cost the county millions of dollars.

If they are to be upgraded to better withstand the types of rain events the area has increasingly seen, that will cost more money yet. There is an evolving consensus that in order to perform their flood control function without being threats to public safety, there will be a need to install companion conservation practices in the watersheds to reduce the volume of water running off.

“It’s not just a conservation issue, but also a zoning issue as well at this point,” Wojahn emphasized. “We’re now faced not just with floodplain zoning, but dam breach routes have also become an issue.”

Costly repeated repairs

Wojahn pointed out to the group that the county, when considering his department’s requests, needs to take into account the cost of repeatedly repairing the same damaged infrastructure after each flood event.

“The townships and the county are going broke repairing infrastructure, and it’s hard to make any real progress,” Wojahn observed. “My thought is that we need to look at building resiliency, and think more about how many acre feet of water we can hold on the land through installation of conservation practices.”

Wojahn asked group members if any of the farmers would be willing to step forward and speak in favor of his request to use the Ho-Chunk funds to create the two limited-term employment positions. He emphasized that the buzz word in conservation planning and grant writing these days is “data driven decisions.”

“The key is big picture planning,” Woodhill Farms owner Brian McCulloh said. “We need to bring the right people to the table with the knowledge to see and access opportunities.”

Chuck Bolstad seemed to agree. “This group is the best group that I belong to because it is a group of real farmers who are as concerned about environmental practices as they are about a couple bushels of soybeans.”

Grant Rudrud raised the question of why more water seemed to be running off these days. Brian McCulloh pointed out that even just building a shed can funnel water in a different direction and create a gully.

“You’re right,” Rudrud said. “We have to start rethinking how we look at things.”

“On the other had, we don’t want to overreact, and God forbid we should utter the words ‘global warming,’” McCulloh said. “I think we need to develop some perspective.”

“If we don’t start getting ahead of the flooding, it’s our counties, towns, farmers, and communities that suffer,” Wojahn said. “Let’s stop repeatedly spending money to fix the same infrastructure. We’re spending the money anyhow – let’s spend it trying to get ahead.”

Petition to board

Spanky suggested that the group could write a petition, and then the members of the group could sign it. Grant Rudrud, Jeff Ostrem and Berent Froiland agreed to represent the group at the upcoming meeting of the Vernon Land and Water Committee, present the petition, and speak in support of Wojahn’s proposals.

The ‘Petition for Use of a Portion of the Ho-Chunk Payment’ read: “We, the undersigned members of the Tainter Creek Watershed Council, petition the Vernon County Board for matching funds from the Ho-Chunk payment. These funds are to be used in mapping all of Vernon County’s floods from 2007 to present, to determine which watershed areas are most at risk. This will allow us to pinpoint the high risk areas using data driven decisions. We feel mapping of flood data in the entire county must be done to prioritize resources. Matching funds not to exceed $75,000.”

The petition was signed by 12 farmer-members of the watershed council.

Well water testing

Chuck Bolstad reported to the group that they had received requests for more than the 40 well water tests that the group has budgeted, and that sign ups for the testing are now closed. This will mean that the group will test 40 of the 470 wells in the watershed.

“Amazingly enough, I’ve made the decision to go back to work,” Bolstad said. “So we are looking for another person to step forward and help Bruce Ristow with the sample collection.”

There was discussion of creating a central drop off point for samples, such as the Franklin Town Hall. Bruce Ristow expressed that he prefers to pick the samples up in person. While he needs another group member to volunteer to help, he said landowners who need to leave for work can identify a cool, dark place to leave the samples where they can be picked up even if the landowner is not home at the time.

Bolstad reported that they are waiting to hear from UW-Stevens Point Center for Watershed Science about when they can schedule the Tainter Creek testing.

“We are currently shooting to do the sampling around the first of November,” Ristow said. “When we get our date, then we will notify participants by e-mail, or by phone if they don’t have e-mail.”

Ristow explained that they plan to visit each participant to explain the process and drop off the sample bottles. There will be two draws for the sample. The first will be ‘the first draw of the day,’ ideally around 7 a.m. Participants should try not to run the water in the house before taking the sample. The second draw will be taken after running the water for 15 minutes. The sample will need to be collected from an outlet where the water is not softened, and where it is not filtered.

Participants will need to furnish certain information about their well including a legal description of where the well is located, the depth of the well, and the diameter of the casing.

“We’re going to have a very tight turn frame on collecting the samples and getting them up to the lab in Stevens Point,” Ristow emphasized. “We’re basically going to collect the samples and run.”

Checks to pay the landowner or renter portion of the testing fee, in the amount of $25, should be made out to the Vernon County Land and Water Department.

“The Center for Watershed Science and Education is very excited about our testing program,” Bolstad shared. “They are excited to be able to conduct a comparison of ground and surface water quality in the Tainter Creek Watershed.”

Cover crops

Berent Froiland reported that sign ups for the cover crop installation funds, “while still a bit of a floating number” are right around the total 500-acre commitment, at 40 acres each.

“I’m concerned that there is so much push to install cover crops, but not enough education about how to manage cover crops,” Grant Rudrud expressed. “There are so many variables with seed choice, timing and termination, and I think we need to think about what we can do to further educate those that have signed up.”

Brian McCulloh asked Froiland how many of the individuals who have signed up for the funds are ‘first timers.’ Froiland responded that about 25 percent are planting cover crops for the first time.

“Derek Petersheim has planted cover crops two or three times on my farm,” Jeff Ostrem shared. “One year, when we had nice weather, he raked up the soybean trash before applying PK and winter rye seed and got a much better stand as a result. So one piece of advice is that you might do better with improved seed-to-soil contact.”

“A farmer’s plans and Mother Nature don’t always agree, and we are all experimenting at this point,” Brian McCulloh said. “I’m going to see how the spring goes, and then think about trying a few different approaches – maybe terminate some and graze some of the others.”

Berent Froiland suggested that maybe the group needs to hold a ‘Local Cover Crop Forum’ to get farmers together along with some experienced farmers from the area, to share ideas and learnings.

“These kind of exchanges are what I am most hoping for from this group,” Brian McCulloh said.

Suggestions of experienced area farmers to invite to a forum included Derek Petersheim, Swede Knutson, Jay Aspenson and Josh Engel.

Next meeting

The group agreed to meet next on Monday, Dec. 10, 7:30 p.m., at the farm of NAME, ADDRESS.

Topics for the group’s agenda will include:

Surface water quality report from John Delaney of Valley Stewardship Network

Wallace Center phosphorous reduction grant

DATCP Producer-Led Watershed Council grant

Encouraging more rotational grazing in the watershed, and partnering people interested with people that have land for rent