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Tainter Creek Watershed Council resurrects an old county tradition
Tainter Dams-1
THERES AN OLD SAYING that history repeats itself, and that just might be happening. A longstanding Crawford and Vernon County tradition has been resurrected with the formation of the Tainter Creek Watershed Council. This image of the Tainter Creek Watershed, from the April 1967 Blackhawk-Kickapoo Watershed Work Plan shows the location of proposed dams.

GAYS MILLS - There’s an old saying that “history repeats itself,” and that just might be happening. A longstanding Crawford and Vernon County tradition has been resurrected with the formation of the Tainter Creek Watershed Council.

A dozen Crawford and Vernon County farmers, and Land Conservation and County Extension staff participated in a meeting, held Monday, June 12 at the Franklin Town Hall in Liberty Pole to discuss conservation farming issues and more.

The group’s next meeting will take place on Monday, August 7, 7:30 p.m., at the Franklin Town Hall.

 “We are always looking for new ideas on how to help with land and water conservation, as well as educate others on different ways to protect soil and water,” explained facilitator Berent Froiland, a farmer from rural Viroqua. “We have producers from all different backgrounds and are looking to get as many ideas as possible to help preserve the watershed. After last year's flood, we all saw the damage not only to the Tainter Creek watershed but also to our own property that eventually filters down to the creek.”

Having held four meetings to date, the group is still in its very intial stages. At the meeting, the group voted to adopt the following mission statement: ‘Demonstrate and implement the best practices that can improve Tainter Creek and the Tainter Creek watershed.’

Grant County UW-Extension’s Ted Bay, who has been instrumental in helping to facilitate Crawford County’s trailblazing cover crop program, as well as Vernon County Conservationist Ben Wojahn, were in attendance.

Bay and Wojahn led the group in an informal discussion of cover crops.

Their presentations included information about funding for cover crops and practical advice about when, and what to plant.

Farmers in the group shared information and experiences with others who were just getting started in using cover crops on their fields.

County extension future

The group also discussed changes in the state’s county extension program. It was noted that there is a lack of an extension agent for Vernon County. There are also possible upcoming shifts in the Extension Program in Crawford County. There was a brief explanation of how Grant and Lafayette County Extension provides services.

“In the future counties will be able to have an extension agent if they choose, but will have to pay a flat fee to hire an agent with a bachelor degree level education,” Bay told the group.

Bay contrasted the old “one-size-fits-all” model with the model being used in the cooperative agreement between Grant and Lafayette counties.

In those counties, the extension agents are specialists. Each can specialize to some degree, covering the particular areas where they are subject matter experts. Bay specializes in cover crops and farm pest management. The other agent specializes in covers, dairy and livestock.

“I think it’s a better model,” Bay said. “You wouldn’t get your best service if I was trying to answer your questions about dairy, or if my colleague was trying to answer your questions about pest management or cover in field crops.”  

Grant application

The Tainter Creek Watershed Council is considering applying for a Wisconsin Producer-Led Watershed Protection (PLWP) Grant. This will continue to be a topic at future meetings.

Who knows the land better than farmers themselves? That’s the premise behind the grants. Farmers band together to seek solutions to conservation problems – solutions that fit the conditions on their farms without damaging productivity or profits.

The goal of the voluntary program is to improve water quality by preventing or reducing runoff pollution from farmyards and fields.

The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) awards the grants. Each producer group may receive up to $20,000 per year, with a total of $250,000 available annually.

To apply, the group must be composed of at least five eligible producers working to improve water quality through conservation activities. An “eligible producer” means the operator of a farm that produced at least $60,000 in gross farm revenues during the taxable year or at least $18,000 in gross farm revenues during three taxable years.

Recipients of the grant must assist other agricultural producers in a watershed to voluntarily conduct water quality improvements. They must also adopt a Memorandum of Understanding with UW-Extension or their county Land Conservation Department. A producer-led group that is a legal entity, or has a legal entity acting on behalf of the group must accept the grant. The group must provide matching funds at least equal to their grant request.

“The deadline for applications has been pushed into January/February now,” Wojahn noted. “But applying sooner is better.”

Dams can’t stand alone

“Every watershed work plan that was approved for federal funding, such as the one earthen dam in Crawford County, and the many in Vernon County, under the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act of 1954 (P.L. 566) required watersheds to establish targets for increasing conservation farming and forestry practices in the watershed,” according to John Ramsden, NRCS State Conservation Engineer.

Back in the days of the Soil Conservation Service (the predecessor to NRCS and the county land conservation departments), producers were rewarded financially for establishment of various conservation farming practices on their land such as farming on the contour, establishment of strip cropping, building terraces and more.

Vernon has always been a leader in farm conservation. It is no different today. The old Agricultural Conservation Program (ACP) of the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service paid farmers to install conservation practices.

For instance, in 1965, a Vernon County farmer could be paid $4 per acre for establishing strip crops. They also could be paid for 75 percent of the cost of installing permanent sod waterways, 80 percent of the cost of construction of terraces, $1.50 per acre for establishment of winter rye as vegetative cover for winter and spring protection from erosion, and more.

“The ACP program no longer exists. Now, farmers would most likely work with NRCS to set up Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) or Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) contracts,” according to Crawford County Conservationist, David Troester.   “Any cost-share that my department offers is more for construction practices like dams, streambank stabilizations, etc.”

Vernon and Crawford County currently lead the state in this. At the meeting of the Tainter Watershed Council, Vernon County Conservationist, Ben Wojahn, told participants that Vernon County has the highest number of EQIP sign-ups in the state, followed by Crawford County, which is second highest.

Historically, the name adopted for the Tainter Creek Watershed Council was the ‘Blackhawk-Kickapoo Watershed Association.’

The Work Plan for the Blackhawk-Kickapoo Watershed was prepared in April 1967 by the Crawford and Vernon County Soil and Water Conservation Districts, with assistance by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Soil and Conservation Service; U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service; U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service; Wisconsin Conservation Department; Blackhawk-Kickapoo Watershed Association; Halls Branch Watershed Association; Wisconsin State Soil and Water Conservation Committee; and the Agricultural Extension Service.

It states the following:

The most significant aspect of the Blackhawk-Kickapoo Work Plan is not only a continuation, but an acceleration of the current program of land treatment.

Land treatment measures already applied and those considered for future application in this plan are for watershed protection.

Amounts of land treatment measures to be applied during the five-year project installation period were set by district supervisors and directors of the Watershed Association based on recommendations of the Soil Conservation Service, U.S. Forest Service, and Wisconsin Conservation Department. Land treatment measures to be applied on this land include: conservation cropping systems, diversions, grade stabilization structures, grassed waterways, pasture and hayland renovation, contour stripcropping, gradient terraces, wildlife habitat development, timber stand improvement, sustained yield management, livestock exclusion, and open field and reinforcement tree planting.

Later in the document, the authors go on to explain that “it would seem advisable to intensify the land treatment program in the Blackhawk-Kickapoo Watershed since in the six-site study [where building dams was being explored] more than 84 percent of the cropland is Class III  and Class IV cropland by capability, with 3,937 acres of Class III, and 3,851 acres of Class IV cropland.”

It continued, “According the Soils Memorandum 22, May 19, 1958, on Land Capability Classifications, the soils in Class III have severe limitations that reduce the choice of plants or require special conservation practices, or both. Soils in Class IV have very severe limitations that restrict the choice of plants, require very careful management, or both.”

Kickapoo Valley shifts

The four counties composing the Kickapoo Valley, Monroe, Vernon, Richland and Crawford, show a clear history of shifting land use practices, based on U.S. Census data, between the 1930’s and 2012.

Between 1959 and 1964, acres farmed on the contour in the Kickapoo Valley’s four counties increased by five percent, from 130,579 acres to 137,590 acres. Between 1964 and 1969, they decreased by 43 percent, down to 78,132 acres.

Between 1959 and 1964, acres farmed in strip crops in the Kickapoo Valley’s four counties increased by five percent, from 182,658 acres to 191,800 acres. Between 1964 and 1969, they decreased by 36 percent, down to 122,718 acres.

Acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) began to appear in census data in 1978. Acres enrolled in CRP in the Kickapoo Valley’s four counties in 2002 had increased from acres reported in 1978 by 334 percent, from 14,522 acres up to 63,008 acres.

Between 2002 and 2012 there was a sharp decrease in acres enrolled, by 46 percent, down to 33,994 acres. This decrease in enrollments seems to correspond with the increases in commodity prices for corn and soybeans in the time period.

Acres planted in corn in the Kickapoo Valley’s four counties increased from 1935 to 2012 by 41 percent, from 130,766 acres up to 221,355 acres.

Acres planted in soybeans increased from 1935 to 2012 by 140 percent, from 21,952 acres up to 76,163 acres. The jump in soybean acres between 1997 and 2002 was particularly dramatic, increasing by 165 percent, from 22,666 acres up to 57,400 acres.

Meanwhile, acres in pasture in the Kickapoo Valley’s four counties decreased between 1930 and 2012 by 83 percent, from 843,874 acres down to 141,430 acres.

Numbers of cattle for all purposes in the four counties reached a historic high in the 1987 census data. In all cases the numbers in 2012 were more or less back at 1935 census levels.

The number of cattle grew by 41 percent between 1935 and 1987, and then shrunk by 39 percent between 1987 and 2012.

Crawford County always had the lowest number of cattle of the four counties, and the 2012 number of head was 16 percent lower than the 1935 level, with Richland County at 11 percent lower than in 1935. In 2012, Monroe County had 11 percent more cattle than in 1935, and Vernon County one percent more.

The decline in acres in pasture or hay in the watershed is likely linked to the decline in numbers of cattle.

Watershed group history

It seems the perennial problem of flooding is what always gets people thinking about forming watershed working groups.

The Kickapoo Valley experienced a massive flood in 1951, and then another round of catastrophic flash flooding occurred in 1959.

From an article in the July 2, 1959 issue of the Crawford County Independent:

Rain! Every hour, a shower. That’s the weather story for the Kickapoo since last Wednesday when a drenching downpour dashed to flinders the prediction of professional prophets that a long, hard drought was just around the bend.

And then, to make sure that the dust was completely settled around the men with graphs and slide rules, downpours in the 36-hour period following brought near-record rainfall recordings. The highest farmer-owned rain gauge reading reported to the Crawford County Independent was 8.4 inches. Other reports ranged from eight inches to five.

Torrential downpours caused four consecutive flash floods on Conway and Tainter Creeks, rendered impassable two bridges on Conway, caused numerous landslides, blocked highways and inundated corn and tobacco fields and low-lying pastures. Scattered areas reported some hail damage.

In the same story, it was reported that:

William Werth, Vernon County agricultural agent; Virgil Buttris, Crawford County agricultural agent; Al Hanson, Soil Conservationist from Viroqua and Art Amundson of Gays Mills SCS office, met Wednesday morning in Gays Mills to discuss coordination of watershed protection activities in the two counties, particularly, but not exclusively, the Tainter-Johnstown watershed. Also discussed were plans for informational meetings in the near future.

And so the vibrant watershed working groups that were active in Crawford, County in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s were born.

This story about the history of the Watershed Working Groups may offer insight into the current situation in the Kickapoo Valley and Tainter Creek watersheds.