Farmer's trout project stirs conservation fight

Sari Lesk

STEVENS POINT - Donald Isherwood was tickled when he learned he could create a trout spawning habitat near his Plover farm.

Isherwood owns Isherwood Family Farms, a 250-acre plot where he grows crops including potatoes, peas, soybeans and corn. As a fifth-generation farmer,he works land that has been in his family since 1852. The land is near the Buena Vista Marsh and a drainage ditch called the Isherwood Lateral, part of a system of ditches designed to keep all the local farmers' fields dry enough to grow their crops.

That lateral is also where Isherwood had an idea: His research showed trout would spawn there if he placed "woody debris" such as Christmas trees in the stream bed. He also expected the system would act like a filter, scrubbing silt from the water to make it cleaner as it washes downstream.

And his plan worked. Since he placed pine trees in the ditch, he's seen the trout population grow in size and quantity.

"By doing just, to my mind, a little bit to the streams, we can engage this whole resource," he said. "So what's not to like about it?"

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His neighbors have an answer to that question, as does the local board that governs the stream where Isherwood built his project. Although local conservationists say they support the project, neighbors complain his changes to the ditch could cause their fields to flood and them to lose their crops. They're demanding someone with authority, such as the Portage County Drainage Board, force Isherwood to remove the trees.

Donald Isherwood drives to the ditch near his farm where he developed a trout habitat. Neighbors in the drainage district oppose the project, fearing it will cause their farms to flood.

'Maybe it's civil disobedience'

The system of ditches that contains the Isherwood Lateral is known as the Portage County Drainage District.Under Wisconsin law, landowners can petition to organize a formal drainage district that is governed by a board. In the southwest portion of the county, landowners first petitioned the state in 1898, according to state records, and a court ordered creation of the district in 1905. A drainage board collects taxes from landowners in the district to fund maintenance and cleaning of the drainage system. Portage County's drainage board consists of three members who are appointed by the local courts.

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Isherwood started talking with the board about his stream rehabilitation project about 10 years ago, but the board never approved the project. Isherwood said the board was willing to look at a project proposal as part of an agreement to dredge the ditchand that he obtained grant funding but the board put a stop to it. As attempts to bring the project to fruition fell apart, he started work without the requisite permission to see how it would go.

"Maybe it's impatience on my part; maybe it's civil disobedience," he said. "I could be accused of that. I knew they wouldn't like this and knew they would object. But we've gone through the process twice and for me, it's time to bring it out in the open."

That's how Isherwood tells the story, both in interviews and court records. But Drainage Board Chairman Paul Cieslewicz said he sees it differently. Cieslewicz said the board members told Isherwood they are open to stream rehabilitation in some form, but they want to properly vet the project. He also said the board wanted Isherwood to design the project for a different location, with multiple landowners involved, that would give the board easier access to the work "if something went wrong."

Donald Isherwood placed debris in a ditch near his home to develop a trout spawning habitat.

In Cieslewicz's telling, the board didn't hear again from Isherwood about the project and assumed the matter was dropped until Cieslewicz made a discovery in mid-2016. 

'We've got to cross this bridge'

Isherwood had taken a risk with his project and extended it to a location more visible to the public.

"I was feeling so confident as to the approach in its righteousness. I put some debris in where they could see it from the road," he said. "I was told by somebody who lives with me, 'Don't do that.' And I thought, no, it's time, that we've got to cross this bridge. This is the right thing to do."

Cieslewicz saw it as he was driving past. He said the board sent Isherwood an order to clean out the ditch, which Isherwood did not do. The Drainage Board then voted to remove the project and charge the costs back to Isherwood, records show. Isherwood took the matter to court, where he seeks a judge's review of what it means to "obstruct" a drainage ditch — the violation he's accused of — along with a court order blocking the board from removing the project until the issue is resolved.

The judge has not signed the order Isherwood requested, which Cieslewicz said means the board has the right to take action. They've left the project alone for now, he said, because they want to let the court process play out to prove Isherwood is in violation of the law.

'It seems quite foolish'

Cieslewicz said the board's strong stance against the project is in part to protect the other members of the drainage district and their livelihoods.

Neighbors demanded the board take action, he said, fearing their land would flood.

"He hasn't hampered anybody yet," he said. "But as this keeps going on and gets worse and worse, the water table will keep coming up."

Ciewslewicz said he believes it will cause wet fields, lost crops and missed profit opportunities because he said Isherwood's project interferes with the way the drainage system is engineered.

Donald Isherwood talks in his home about his trout habitat project that neighbors oppose.

"A major runoff event would dislodge trees and limbs placed in the channel, potentially blocking road culverts, resulting in road damage and crop loss," the district's drainage engineer, Robert Pofahl, wrote. The report says the findings are based on observation during a field visit. "Delaying maintenance could create expediential (sic) costs in the future."

Those were the same concerns neighbors brought to the Department of Natural Resources when the state agency held a November hearing on Isherwood's request for a permit for the work. Isherwood requested "after-the-fact" permission from the DNR to keep the project in place, saying he mistakenly thought the project was permissible. The project requires approval from the Drainage Board and the DNR because the location was a stream before it was a ditch, said DNR Field Supervisor Keith Patrick.

The DNR accepted testimony from the public before deciding whether to issue a permit. Weller Farms' Patricia Weller, for instance, argued in a letter against the permit request because the ditch is meant for drainage and not for fish habitats.

"After 111 years of time, effort, and money have gone into creating and maintaining this drainage system, it seems quite foolish to allow just anyone with a haphazard brainstorm to alter its design and undermine its functionality," the letter states.

Others disagree, including George Kraft, the director of the Center for Watershed Science and Education at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. In written comments directed at the Drainage Board, Kraft describes himself as a friend of the Isherwoods and says his comments are made "within the statutory ethical constraints of the practice of professional hydrology." Kraft states he did not see evidence of obstruction and that the project may be improving the natural flow of water to help the channel maintain itself with less dredging.

The DNR approved Isherwood's permit request in December, meaning the department determined the project would not obstruct navigation, be detrimental to public interest or reduce the flood flow capacity of the stream.

The court case remains ongoing.

'Good for the public?'

That doesn't mean Isherwood's project will sit untouched until the judge rules.

Cieslewicz said he intends to exercise the board's right to remove the project July 15 regardless of the case's status. The board is allowed to work in the ditches between July 15 and Sept. 30, and the board will remove the project the first day it can, he said.

"We've already proven that it's in there," he said. "We've proven that it's illegal. We've done everything else."

Meanwhile, conservationists who support the project are calling for a change in leadership in the drainage district. Board members are appointed by Portage County judges, who consider the recommendations of a county committee. The Friends of the Buena Vista Marsh formed to support Isherwood's project and try to get new faces appointed to the Drainage Board. The group wants to ensure both the farm sector's interests and the conservation community's interests are represented, according to a press release.

"The Board’s efforts to remove the project have created a backlash throughout the community, and have resulted in a growing awareness of the need for Drainage Board members who will consider conservation as well as agricultural uses when making decisions about the waters in the District," the release says.

That's the mindset Isherwood said he uses while he cultivates his fields.

"I've always been part of that envelop of agriculture which is to ask, 'Are the things we're doing good for ourselves, good for the survival of our families, but also good for the public?'" he said. "This is part of that broader question."

Sari Lesk: 715-345-2257 or; on Twitter @Sari_Lesk.