On water issues, science frustrates armchair activists
In the public debate about how to properly protect Wisconsin’s natural resources, the media tends to simplify factions as “agriculture vs. environmentalists.”
That broad generalization is offensive as nearly every single Wisconsin farmer (including retired ones like me) has nurtured the land and water for generations — long before the chorus of armchair activists began trying to tell us how to do our jobs.
If labels have to be applied, they should more accurately refer to the factions as “science vs. slogans.”
Science matters. It has to. It’s why we know the world is round and antibiotics save lives — even if these universal truths don’t make sexy headlines or fit easily on a T-shirt.
And it’s why a recent analysis by the Wisconsin Institute for Sustainable Technology (WIST) is particularly vexing to the sloganeering sector. Paul Fowler, Ph.D, executive director of WIST (part of the College of Natural Resources at UW-Stevens Point) noted that Wisconsin’s high level of forestation may be contributing more to groundwater depletion on an annual basis than agricultural water use.
“Concerns in other nations regarding the impact of forested land on water availability coupled with the fact that Wisconsin currently has the largest forest land area with the most mature stands since pre-European settlement times leads us to contemplate that (forest density) may have as large a part to play as agriculture in the impact of groundwater inventory,” Fowler found.
Simply stated: The very trees the sloganeers are hugging may be sucking up our groundwater at a significantly higher rate than the farmers who are feeding them.
Fowler’s research pinpoints Wisconsin’s Central Sands region — an aquifer encompassing about 1.5 million acres in parts of Adams, Marquette, Portage, Waupaca, Waushara and Wood counties — and one of the political hot spots in the ongoing groundwater wars because it ranks as one of the top vegetable-growing regions in the country.
“Wisconsin now has more forested land than at any time since the first Forest Service forest inventory in 1936,” the study reports.
This is a good thing, right? I mean, we all can agree that we love trees.
Except, this is where that thing called “science” is going to raise a few hackles: Too much of anything — even a good thing — can become a bad thing. And while a seemingly healthier population of trees is definitely NOT a bad thing, it is incurring unintended consequences. Between 1996 and 2014, the Central Sands saw a 15 percent increase in forestland from 1.04 million acres to 1.2 million acres and a huge surge — 50 percent — in softwood acres. This mirrors an explosion in the number of “lake homes” popping up near shorelines and waterways, and a corresponding reduction in farm acres.
That softwood statistic is notable because, Fowler notes, “softwood species maintain high levels of interception,” which is just an academic way of saying that softwoods aggressively catch rainfall on branches, leaves and trunks where it evaporates before ever reaching the ground.
Significant studies in the United Kingdom, China and South Africa all predicted that dense forestation “would reduce water … aquifier recharge by as much as 56 percent.”
Fowler’s research goes on, but you get the point. It offers a fundamental challenge to the accepted sloganeering narrative that the root of all water issues begins and ends at the farmer’s doorstep.
Until all factions can accept an honest assessment of natural resources management — until the homeowner can acknowledge that his ever-growing backyard forest needs to be scrutinized as much as the farmer’s feeding fields — genuine progress remains unlikely.
I’m not optimistic. People aren’t so enthused about science when it isn’t exactly what they want to hear.
Darrell Willer of Oshkosh retired from full-time farming in 2015.