Testing the waters

Gloria Hafemeister


The Rock River Basin faces many challenges to maintaining water quality and quantity, including extreme weather patterns and climate change; mounting pressure from urbanization; pollution from point and non-point sources; and threats posed by invasive species.

The Rock River Coalition works to facilitate public engagement in watershed management through its volunteer stream monitoring program. Citizen participation is the cornerstone of the Rock River Coalition stream monitoring program, according to Pat Cicero, a Rock River Coalition board member and the water resources management specialist with the Jefferson County Land and Water Resource Department.

Established in 2002, the RRC has trained over 200 volunteers to “test the waters” using easy-to-learn methods developed by the state-wide Water Action Volunteers Program, a collaboration between the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the University of Wisconsin-Cooperative Extension. The Rock River Coalition has over 80 volunteer stream monitors collecting water quality data throughout the Rock River Basin.

When the UW-Discovery Farms program hosted a field day at Awesome Acres at Fort Atkinson, Cicero demonstrated how the monitoring is done and attendees had an opportunity to examine the water from a stream running between farm fields.

According to Cicero, a healthy stream will include debris, sufficient oxygen and a rocky stream bottom. Bottom dwellers in the stream include freshwater mussels, caddis fly larvae, may fly larvae, snails, stonefly larvae and dragonfly larvae.

On farms, steps can be taken to protect streams including the inclusion of cover crops and best management practices that prevent erosion.

Pat Cicero, Rock River Coalition Board member and water resources management specialist with the Jefferson County Land and Water Resource Department, stood in a stream on the Rohloff Farm at Fort Atkinson to illustrate how the team of volunteers monitors streams to evaluate water quality. Participants had an opportunity to evaluate the clarity of this stream and see how the land is managed to prevent runoff into the stream.

Role of buffers

The stream on the Rohlhoff farm had a 20-foot buffer strip of grass between the cropped fields and the stream.

Land Conservation Department officials taking part in the tour said buffers are helpful in filtering water coming off land into streams, but they said there is no one-size-fits all recommendation for farms.

The appropriate width of a buffer strip is determined by the slope of the land feeding into it. When land around a stream is hilly and there is a greater possibility of runoff during heavy rainfalls, a wider buffer strip may be important. When land is protected from erosion with cover crops, contours, no-till and other erosion control measures, or when land is relatively flat, a buffer strip may not be necessary.

Visitors observed the clarity of the stream running through the Rohloff farm.

Discovery Farms' role

Eric Cooley, director of the Discovery Farms program, said the Discovery Farms program was started because there are so many different types of conditions on farms around the state. There are areas where hills are steep, there are sandy areas of the state, there are areas where there is heavy clay soil and there are the drumlin areas. Contours and soil types, along with farming practices, make a big difference in how much water runs off.

“Conservation practices cannot be a one-size-fits all,” he said. “What works for one farm may not work for his neighbor. It’s not that one practice is right or wrong but just that they are different.

“Protection from soil loss is critical on all farms, but we need to look at where water flows, especially in the early spring period when runoff occurs the most.”

The Discovery Farms works with farms all around the state, considering the diversity and gathering data that will be helpful to farmers working to keep their soil in place.

He pointed out that most farmers know the importance of keeping soil and nutrients in place. Not only does this protect the environment but it is also a matter of economics. Nutrients are expensive and soil needs to stay in place in order to get the yields necessary to remain in farming.

“We’re always looking for ways to get nutrients below the soil surface,” he said.

The Discovery Farms program makes recommendations, based on the on-farm research, for keeping nutrients in place, especially when spreading manure. They have developed guidelines for spreading manure, especially during the critical run-off periods, based on the on-farm research.

“Farmers come up with ideas to protect the environment and the soils," Cooley said. "They are innovative.”

The Discovery Farms program has also worked on feed storage lechate control, headland stacking of poultry manure and many other projects.