CRAWFORD & VERNON COUNTIES - At the meeting on Monday, Aug. 7, of the Tainter Creek Watershed Council at the Franklin Town Hall in Liberty Pole, 19 agricultural producers and interested community members gathered to discuss conservation farming and ways in which they can work together to make positive changes in their community. Their next meeting is scheduled for Monday, Oct. 2, at 7:30 p.m., at the Franklin Town Hall in Liberty Pole.
Participants came from both the Crawford and Vernon County areas of the Tainter Creek Watershed, and included: Ben Wojahn, Vernon County Conservationist; Brian McCulloh; Berent Froiland, Franklin Township Chairman; Lavon Felton; Karen and Chuck Bolstad; Matt Emslie of Valley Stewardship Network; Evan Dvorschack; Grant Rudrud; Ralph Hendrickson; Danny Sheldon; Jeff Ostrem; Leonard Olson, Utica Township Chairman; Luther Froiland; Linda Nederlo; Ed Heisz; Bruce Ristow; Alicia Leinberger and Paul Karlen.
The first order of business for the group was to discuss the merits of applying for a Producer Led Watershed Grant, offered through the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP).
Ben Wojahn, the Vernon County Conservationist, clarified for the group that the matching funds required for the group to receive up to a maximum of $20,000 can be a combination of in-kind contributions or cash. He encouraged the group not to be intimidated by the requirement.
Five local producers will be required to step up and sign on as sponsors for the application. The group will need to develop biographies for each to accompany the application. It can be more than five, but five is the minimum.
Discussion turned to what kinds of uses the funds could be put to. A brainstorm included installation of conservation practices such as cover crops, strip cropping, and terraces; surface and ground water monitoring; runoff and soil erosion monitoring; educational events, field days, and more.
The group has appointed a sub-committee of Berent Froiland, Bruce Ristow, Ben Wojahn and Matt Emslie, to write a draft of the DATCP grant application, and bring it back to the full group in October.
Matt Emslie of the Valley Stewardship Network, who was instrumental in helping the watershed council to form initially, explained that part of the application process is to create a description of what the resource concerns are for the group in the watershed.
There was also broad agreement that it will be impossible to measure and document their successes in the watershed if they don’t first develop a baseline resource assessment.
A group brainstorm of resource concerns included surface and ground water quality, karst geology, soil health, and erosion and runoff.
Water quality, as might be expected in a meeting of a watershed council, was a very big concern to the group.
One participant shared a story about friends, who travelled north this summer and saw billboards along the side of the highway in the Stevens Point area, accusing farmers of polluting and stealing the community’s water.
“That relates more to the very, very large farms that are operating in the Central Sands area of the state, especially potato farmers,” Alicia Leinberger explained. “The issue up there is high capacity wells which are draining the aquifers. The Little Plover River, for instance, which is a Class One trout stream in Portage County, has essentially disappeared. They have somewhat different issues up there than we do in this part of the state.”
In February of 2013, American Rivers named the Little Plover River among the country's most endangered rivers. The river has been running dry, and many see the culprit as excessive pumping of the groundwater system that feeds it.
Another resident brought up this area’s Karst geology and the many sinkholes. He shared a story about how neighbors used to just dump manure in the sinkhole on their property, and even pile and burn garbage in them.
“I hate to think about all the toxins that went into our water from practices like that,” he said.
Leonard Olson shared that he had read somewhere that in the future, water is going to be more valuable than oil.
“Did you ever think when you were a kid that you’d go to the store to buy a bottle of water?” Olson asked.
Safe to say, farming and water quality are being increasingly linked in the minds of Americans.
“This is becoming a really big deal all over the U.S., and it’s starting to give farmers a black eye,” Brian McCulloh said. “That’s why we needed to form this group. We want to be proactive in playing our role in protecting our community’s water resources.”
There was discussion that the group would like to explore ways to measure not only edge-of-field soil loss, but also water runoff. Wojahn shared that there may be some equipment to do that becoming available in the area in the near future.
Both Bruce Ristow and Ed Heisz have been doing surface water quality monitoring on Tainter Creek for many years. They shared with the group the kinds of things they test for, and how their data is uploaded into a state database.
Lavon Felton was quick to offer thanks to Ristow and Heisz for their many long years of service.
Ben Wojahn and Ristow will access the data that exists for Tainter Creek and bring that back to the next meeting for review and discussion.
The group agreed that they might want to identify other locations in the watershed to be monitored, to develop a more well-rounded picture to help create a water quality baseline.
There was broad agreement that it would be important for the group to try to develop a baseline for groundwater quality, as well as for surface water quality.
Wojahn shared that when he worked for Taylor County, they were able to get grant money from the Ho Chunk Nation for cost sharing on private well testing. He said this, or something like it, could be pursued by the Tainter group. Emslie reported that VSN also has funds available for soil and water testing.
Brian McCulloh shared a story about working with a private firm in the La Crosse area to get his well water tested.
“All they’d test for is coliform, and that was $100. Then if I wanted anything more tested for, they were resistant, and everything additional cost another $100,” McCulloh said. “They almost made me feel like a criminal.”
Watershed group history
The group discussed the history of the Blackhawk-Kickapoo Watershed Association, which operated in the Tainter Creek Watershed in the 1960s.
There was agreement that trying to seek PL566 funding to construct the other dry dams proposed in the Blackhawk-Kickapoo Watershed Workplan in this day and age would likely be extremely difficult.
The question was raised about why all the dams proposed in the Blackhawk-Kickapoo Work Plan (B-KWP) were not built. Linda Nederlo, whose father owned the farm where the Johnstown Dam was built, cited financial reasons.
“They weren’t built because they ran out of money,” Nederlo said.
There was discussion about the history of the La Farge Dam Project, which was being developed at the same time as the B-KWP. The two projects competed for federal funding, and became political footballs.
It was pointed out that the LaFarge project was designed to help prevent larger river floods on the Kickapoo, like the one the area recently experienced. It would not have prevented the kind of flash flooding seen in the Tainter Creek Watershed and elsewhere last September.
Crawford County Independent columnist Pearl Swiggum weighed in on the controversy in the 1960s.
“I hope local residents will remember to see the value of the smaller flood control structures already planned,” Swiggum wrote in her weekly column ‘Country Cousin.’
Leonard Olson seemed to express agreement with Swiggum’s take the on flooding.
“They should have taken all that money they wasted on that LaFarge Dam Project, and built all the smaller dams out in the countryside in the watersheds, and we’d have gotten something for our money and been a lot further ahead,” the Utica Township Chairman said.
Wojahn shared with the group that his department has hired a technician. In his suggested list of projects for this new person, Wojahn stated that he would like to see a priority put on construction of smaller, dry dams on farms, and buffer strips for grade stabilization and as a way to slow the water down in extreme weather events.
As always, there was lots of discussion and information sharing about cover crops. Participants were reminded about the cover crop field day coming up at Jay Aspenson’s farm near Mt. Sterling.
Crawford County will begin aerial seeding again the first week of September. Producers should apply before October 1, 2017 to be eligible for EQIP cost-share funds for the 2018 planting.
Lavon Felton reported to the group that he is preparing to plant some prairie buffer strips on his farm. There was lively discussion about where to obtain the seed, and about challenges in establishment of prairie. Some producers planned to attend the August 12 workshop at Nature’s Nook in rural Westby where prairie buffers would be discussed.