Since 2016, Valley Stewardship Network has been facilitating and assisting in the development of local watershed councils. Watershed councils are groups of landowners that come together to improve or preserve the condition of their watershed in a non-regulatory, voluntary, and locally organized fashion. Research has shown this these types of groups can be as, or more, effective as regulation when it comes to implementing changes on the landscape that improve water quality. The focal point of our current efforts includes Tainter Creek (Kickapoo River), West Fork (Kickapoo River), South Fork (Bad Axe River), and upper Kickapoo River watersheds. The work in these watersheds is being spearheaded by Matt Emslie and we are actively partnering with Vernon County Land and Water Conservation District (LWCD) on these projects.
We first started conceptualizing the idea of local watershed councils in the summer of 2016. Encouraging and facilitating change on the landscape and on farms is as much of a social challenge as it is a technical challenge. For the most part, we have a pretty good understanding of the technical steps required to effect positive change in water quality. The part that is much more difficult is navigating the social conditions that affect adoption of BMPs. For this reason, we determined that we needed to work at the smallest geographic scale possible, where the social fabric and local relationships were identifiable and distinct. We determined that working at the HUC 12 scale would be the most appropriate for the goals we had in mind.
But which HUC 12 watersheds would be the most appropriate to try to develop a model for watershed councils? Because we knew we were, at least regionally, potentially starting something new and trying to create a model we wanted to set it up for success as much as possible. If this first attempt was successful than the hope was that other groups may come together either through our efforts or on their own because they could see that there were other functioning existing groups. Probably the most crucial decision we made at the outset was determining that choosing a watershed that had the greatest potential for strong leadership among farmers, rather than because it had the greatest water quality need, was the most important factor in deciding which watershed to pour our initial efforts into. We asked for input from our local partners (NRCS and Vernon County LWCD) that had strong relationships with farmers in watersheds to help us identify local watersheds with strong farmer leaders. Their help was invaluable in this process, without their assistance we would have had a much more difficult and slow go of it in our initial efforts. Through these conversations they helped us to identify not only potential watersheds but also individual farmers that might be interested in this type of group or process. Through this process the Tainter Creek watershed was chosen for its strong leadership potential.
Ray Archuleta Field Day participants gather for a mid-day meal on July 26, 2018. The event was brought to us by the Tainter Creek Farmer-led Watershed Council.
The Tainter Creek Farmer-led Watershed Council was conceived in August of 2016. At the first exploratory meeting 5 farmers were present. Since then, meetings have generally been held every other month, but more often if deemed necessary by the group, and especially so at times when events have been planned.
Meeting places are typically on-farm or at the local town hall. The group sets its own agenda and determines when meetings will occur. One member typically drafts an agenda prior to the meeting, photocopies it, and distributes this to everyone at the start of the meeting. If a member wishes to have something added to the agenda, they simply let the coordinator know prior to the meeting. Typically, this happens via phone call. Meetings are typically informal with light conversation occurring before the actual meeting start for up to 30 minutes. A meeting typically is facilitated by one of the group members, but Matt Emslie from VSN and Ben Wojahn from Vernon County LWCD are usually present and support, technical expertise, and facilitation where needed. Food and beverages are almost always present and seem to help bond the group and add an air of informality to the meetings.
Meeting topics have ranged from soil health, cover crops, water quality, well water testing, baseline water quality data, efforts towards conversion to perennial pasture, alternative cropping systems, opportunities for grant funding, opportunities for the implementation of BMPs, NRCS and county programs, Farm Bill, and export tariffs, among others.
The Tainter Creek Farmer-led Watershed Council currently consists of approximately 30 members, with average bi-monthly meeting attendance of about 15. Current Tainter Creek Farmer-led Watershed Council members represent over 4,000 acres (or 12.5%) of land in the Tainter Creek watershed. Individual landowners own anywhere from 40-1,000 acres. The ‘typical’ landowner is a second or third generation farmer who is part of the group because they are interested in the health, welfare, and future of the watershed and the people and wildlife that live within it. They are interested in adopting changes in their farming practices that will lead to improvements in water and land quality.
The Tainter Creek Farmer-led Watershed Council has identified their mission as: Demonstrate and implement best practices that improve Tainter Creek, and their goals as: to gain a better understanding of the baseline surface and subsurface water quality in the Tainter Creek watershed and find ways to actively improve them; to get a better understanding of the public perception of farmers and find ways to actively improve those perceptions through outreach and education; and to find ways to reduce the effects of flood impacts.
June 2, 2018 Stream Day hosted by the Tainter Creek Farmer-led Watershed Council. Ben Wojahn, Vernon County Land & Water Conservationist, provided a rainfall simulator demonstration to show the run off under varying levels of ground cover. He is pictured here with several members of the Council. Photo Credit: Trout Unlimited Driftless Area Restoration Effort
The Tainter Creek Farmer-led Watershed Council embarked on an ambitious well-water testing program. This program is a continuation of their efforts to get a more comprehensive understanding of the current quality of their surface and subsurface waters. Having a farmer-led group take the initiative in testing surface and well-water is an unusual and forward-thinking step, and this type of initiative shows how unique this group is. Using 2018 DATCP funds, the group was able to subsidize the testing of 44 wells in the Tainter Creek watershed. Mailings were sent to every household in the Tainter Creek watershed advertising the well-water testing program. Many of the wells that were tested belonged to members of the Tainter group.
The typical cost for a standard ‘homeowners’ package, which includes total coliform bacteria, nitrate/nitrogen, pH, alkalinity, chloride, hardness, conductivity, and corrosivity is $52, the Tainter group was able to subsidize this so that homeowners who elected to have their well water tested only needed to contribute $25. Just as importantly, the program coordinators also took responsibility for dropping off and picking up the test bottles at each participant’s home AND driving the samples to the lab at Stevens Point for analysis. The program was coordinated by council members Bruce Ristrow and Chuck Bolstad, with additional assistance provided by Berent Froiland and Scott Sherry.
Because of the interest expressed by the Tainter farmer group and the significant number of wells that were tested, Dr. Paul McGinley and Jessica Haucke of UW-Stevens Point and UW-Extension traveled down from Stevens Point and addressed the group and other interested homeowners in an open meeting on December 10th to help interpret the test results. Individual homeowners could see their own test results, and the collective results were shared while keeping individual results anonymous.
Using newly received 2019 DATCP funding the Tainter Creek Farmer-led watershed Council is planning to conduct a second round of expanded testing in the Tainter Creek watershed to gain an even more comprehensive understanding of their subsurface waters.
Dave Krier, VSN Water Quality Coordinator, presenting results of surface water testing to the Tainter Creek Farmer-led Watershed Council in January, 2019.
This project will build upon the great success that the Tainter Creek Watershed has had over this year. This includes education on soil health, cover crops, water quality, and the bottom line for farmers. This group of farmers has already helped to inspire other farmers to make positive changes, and will continue to use their budding influence to create real, positive change in the watershed. The goal is to increase awareness of surface and groundwater concerns in regards to how land management can have a positive outcome on those precious resources. To increase the use of cover crops in the Watershed. To foster farmer to farmer knowledge sharing. To incentive the use of soil saving alternative crops. To utilize watershed modeling (EVAAL) to help farmers in the watershed understand the concerns, and to see where the greatest benefits to conservation practices are located. To increase awareness of the resource concerns coming off the woodlands, and how farmers can economically and environmentally improve a large portion of their land base.
The activities that the farmers have focused on, including field days, water testing, and community outreach, have greatly increased participation in the producer-led group. Unique youth events with 4-H and FFA (including a blueberry Wild Rice pancake breakfast!), has provided outreach to the next generation of farmer. Significant coverage by our local media has helped to promote the good work that farmers are doing, and has provided a broader reach to the general community.
This group has been steadily gathering momentum and in December of 2017 and again in November of 2018 were awarded $40,000 Producer-Led Watershed Protection Grant from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (DATCP). DATCP’s grant cycles were highly competitive with over 20 applications being submitted by different producer-led groups around the state. These awards, along with support they receive from local partner organizations and agencies, will be used to further the groups mission and goals. The grant awards also lend a sense of legitimacy, official identity and recognition, and accountability to the Tainter Creek Farmer-led Watershed Council. Vernon County LWCD serve as the group’s fiscal manager.
The DATCP grant funds have and will continue to be used to incentivize the increased adoption of cover crops and alternative cropping systems, increase surface water testing sites, test well-water, and host a series of field days in the Tainter Creek watershed that focus on public outreach and education.
In 2018, $10,000 was used to incentivize the introduction of 500 acres of cover crops into the watershed. Another $10,000 was used to test 49 wells in the watershed, and conduct and expand surface water testing efforts. Two public outreach and education events were sponsored by the group also using these DATCP funds: a Tainter Creek Stream day that highlighted water quality in Tainter Creek, and a two-day soil health workshop facilitated by nationally renown soil health specialist Ray Archuleta. Both events drew 100-200 participants.