Farmers, other landowners and conservation professionals are launching a collaborative effort in Sheboygan County in July to test a more efficient way to improve water quality in area streams.
This new approach, part of the Wisconsin Buffer Initiative (WBI), will use science to target conservation practices on fields and pastures that have the greatest potential for contributing excess nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen to the Sheboygan River.
The six-year project is projected to make a measureable difference in improving the quality of water that enters the Sheboygan River, which flows into Lake Michigan. Landowners who put new conservation practices in place are expected to benefit as well by retaining soil and using less fertilizer on their farm fields.
“We have an incredible opportunity to provide clean water and healthy wildlife habitat while maintaining the profitability of farmland,” said Mary Jean Huston, Director of The Nature Conservancy in Wisconsin, which is coordinating the project.
“Thanks to support from the Kohler Trust for Preservation, which has made this project possible, this could become the model for improving streams and rivers in agricultural areas across the Great Lakes and beyond,” Huston said.
Excessive nutrients fuel the growth of plants and algae that can result in algal blooms that decrease water clarity and deplete oxygen. Both are harmful to fish and other aquatic life and can affect drinking water and outdoor recreation including swimming, boating and fishing.
The Sheboygan River basin in eastern Wisconsin encompasses more than 600 square miles including 400 miles of streams and 40,000 acres of wetlands in Sheboygan and four other counties. The area, which has a strong agricultural tradition rooted in the production of milk and cheese, is an important contributor to Wisconsin’s economy.
Otter Creek, a tributary of the Sheboygan River, will be the focal point of the project, where conservation practices will be targeted. Fisher Creek, a tributary of the Pigeon River, will serve as a comparison or control watershed, where land management practices will remain unchanged.
The effort will begin in July when Sheboygan County Planning and Conservation Department staff will invite landowners and farm operators in both watersheds to participate in a farm inventory to obtain information on current crop rotation, tilling practices, fertilizer and manure applications.
Soil samples will also be taken on farm fields and pasture land at no cost to landowners. Potential soil loss and phosphorus run-off from farm fields will then be estimated.
Starting next year, Sheboygan County officials will work with landowners in the Otter Creek watershed to identify and begin implementing alternative land management practices on fields at risk of comparatively high soil and phosphorus losses. Possible conservation measures that could be put into effect to reduce the amount of sediment and nutrients entering Otter Creek include different types of tillage, crop rotations and manure applications as well as adding buffers, restoring wetlands or keeping livestock out of streams. Cost-share opportunities to pay for the work will be available.
The U.S. Geological Survey and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources will gather baseline data on stream flow, water quality and fish populations in both Otter and Fisher creeks. The information is needed to assess the effect of the conservation measures on water quality and wildlife habitat.
Other partners in the project are the Sheboygan River Basin Partnership, University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Wisconsin-Extension and, Wisconsin USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture’s Trade and Consumer Protection Division is also a partner.
“Rivers and streams wind across private land and political boundaries, so to protect them, everyone has to work together,” said Pat Miles, County Conservationist with the Sheboygan County Planning and Conservation Department. “That’s why we’re excited to have such great partners at the federal, state and local level.”
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.