Mississippi River Priority Site

Pecatonica River, Wisconsin

The 120-mile-long Pecatonica River, as well as its 50-mile East Branch, originate in and flow through southwestern Wisconsin, where remnants of oak savanna and tallgrass prairie provide glimpses of pre-settlement Wisconsin.

Along with the remnant grasslands, some high-quality wetlands also remain in the Pecatonica River watershed. The oxbow lakes, shallow water marshes, lowland forests and southern sedge meadows provide critical habitat for a variety of plant and animal species, some of which are on Wisconsin's threatened and endangered species lists.

The Nature Conservancy is working in multiple ways to preserve and restore the habitats and water quality in the Pecatonica River watershed.

Strategies and Progress

In 2006 and 2008, the Conservancy, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Wisconsin Waterfowl Association restored half a mile of habitat at the Conservancy's Barneveld Prairie Preserve along two stretches of the East Branch of the Pecatonica River, a Mississippi River tributary stream, to natural wet prairie habitat. A third restoration project will be completed in the summer of 2009.

Like many streams in southwestern Wisconsin, the East Branch of the Pecatonica has high, steep banks of beautiful, dark soil that crumbles easily into the water. Whenever the stream rises, portions of the bank slump down and wash down the river. This beautiful soil becomes water pollution downstream in the Pecatonica, the Mississippi and perhaps as far away as the Gulf of Mexico.

During the restorations, trees were removed from the stream corridor, sediment in the floodplain was excavated and the land was re-contoured to gradually slope toward the river. The area was seeded with native wet-prairie plant species.

Monitoring of the 2006 restoration by the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows that streambanks withstood severe flooding for two summers, releasing very little sediment into the river. More than 50 native plants and five species of frogs and toads have colonized the restored floodplain.

In addition to benefiting plants and animals and capturing sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus when water spills over the stream's banks, the project is expected to increase floodwater retention during big rainfall events, helping to mitigate flood damage downstream. The Conservancy will continue to work with partners to monitor the results of these restoration efforts.

In 2008, the Conservancy joined farmers, University of Wisconsin scientists, public agencies and other organizations in an effort known as the Wisconsin Buffer Initiative (WBI). The group hopes to improve water quality in the state by strategically targeting conservation efforts on those agricultural fields with the greatest potential for contributing nutrients to streams. WBI is testing this approach in the Pecatonica River watershed before implementing it more broadly across the state.

Using grant monies received from the McKnight Foundation and the Monsanto Company, the Conservancy has provided the Dane County Land Conservation Division with funding for landowner outreach. The county will assess all agricultural lands in the watershed to determine the most strategic locations for conservation practices. Staff will work with affected landowners to develop management plans that meet water quality goals and work for individual landowners. Where possible, the county will provide cost-share dollars to implement the plans. WBI will monitor water quality so the effectiveness of the conservation practices can be assessed and changes made as necessary.

The work along the Pecatonica River is important locally and on a much wider scale. Lessons learned within the watershed will be shared through the Conservancy's Great Rivers Partnership to advance the Conservancy's national and global efforts to protect the Earth's critically important freshwater resources.