Conservation program restores Wisconsin streams

Wisconsin State Farmer
A stream in Wisconsin's "Driftless" area after a restoration project.

MADISON - Along Swinns Valley Creek, an excavator worked to slope back high eroding banks and install rock and log structures for fish habitat. Sloping the eroded banks will help reduce soil losses during the extreme flood events which have plagued the area in recent years.

The fish habitat will provide cover for brown and brook trout which have thrived in the creek since work began upstream by Trout Unlimited (TU), the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) and participating landowners in 2012.

Driftless area

This valley, in the heart of Wisconsin’s unglaciated or “Driftless” area, offers farmers a flat valley floor and gently sloping hillsides, where they plant corn or soybeans and some hay for dairy herds. A thick blanket of rich soil covers the valley floor and makes for good crops, but erodes easily. When a storm hits, the stream can meander widely across these agricultural lands.

Landowner Gerald Boberg, of Buffalo County, farms beef cattle and crops along Swinns Valley.  In 2016, a crew of heavy equipment operators had just finished 1,486 linear feet of stream restoration when a five-inch rainstorm deluged the valley in a few hours. Grassy cover crops on the new banks hadn’t had a chance to grow in, but they still held most of the raw soil in place, leaving only a few patches to fill in.

Upstream, earlier restoration projects on properties owned by Lee Roy and Sharon Fernholz and Bernie and Lynn Pronschinske, also of Buffalo County, were unaffected. Boberg’s unrestored property had significant damage and bank migration. Afterward, Boberg was eager to see the rest of the stream corridor on his farm completed.

Project complete

In 2017, restoration is complete on another 1,719 linear feet, with a heavy equipment crew from the WDNR working its way downstream. Rock has been hauled in from a nearby quarry and is being placed along the water’s edge and banks have been sloped back at a 3:1 slope or flatter.

A stream in Wisconsin's "Driftless" area before being restored.

Rock vortex weirs, root wads and bank placed boulders will provide cover for smaller and larger trout, minnows and plenty of insects. Boberg will be able to mow the stream corridor as means of maintaining grass cover.

Box elders, the dominant softwood along the corridor, are being removed and larger trees like oaks, cottonwoods and willows are being kept in place to shade the stream and cattle. Shallow-rooted box elders tip over into the streams in flood periods and rip out banks as they float downstream. The deeper-rooted trees generally stay in place much better.

The project is just one of 46 funded in 2017 in part by a Farm Bill Conservation Program through NRCS. Over $1.2 million was contracted through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program to projects across 11 southwestern Wisconsin Driftless counties.

The Driftless Area is so named because glaciers bypassed it and didn’t grind down the bedrock into boulders and gravel, which is called glacial “drift” by geologists. The program will continue in fiscal year 2018.

“The Swinns Valley project not only benefits the soil and water resources, it gives the general public a chance to enjoy the restoration; the Bobergs have donated a perpetual fishing access easement on the entire project length,” said Chad Dewrye, NRCS Soil Conservation Technician.

In partnership with Boberg and TU’s Driftless Area Restoration Effort, NRCS will fund a significant part of the restoration focused on erosion control and water quality improvements, over $35,000.

“The Habitat for the Wild and Rare RCPP project with Trout Unlimited in the Driftless Area is a great example of what RCPP was designed to do: engage landowners, leverage contributions from multiple partners, and most importantly, provide solutions on the ground and in the water,” said Matt Otto, NRCS Resource Conservationist and RCPP Coordinator.

Other funding will come from WDNR’s Inland Trout Stamp for fish habitat, Buffalo County Land Conservation Department and still more from local conservation clubs and TU chapters.

“These NRCS Farm Bill partnership dollars help pay for practices that stabilize banks and greatly reduce erosion along working farm lands,” said Jeff Hastings, Project Manager for Trout Unlimited’s Driftless Area Restoration Effort. “When we combine them with funding from Inland Trout Stamp and conservation groups, we add more instream habitat and nongame benefits.”

For more information about RCPP efforts taking place in the Driftless area, visit