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.
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.