Meet the Pecatonica Project Partners

Farmers, academics, agencies and the Conservancy are working together for clean water.

The Wisconsin Buffer Initiative pilot project on the Pecatonica River is a collaboration among academic, county, state, federal and nonprofit partners. Here’s what a few of them have to say about their role in the partnership.

Steve Richter
Director of Conservation Programs
The Nature Conservancy in Wisconsin

How did corporations and foundations like The Monsanto Company and the McKnight Foundation support this project?

Steve Richter: With financial support from The Monsanto Company, the McKnight Foundation, and other individuals, corporations and foundations, the Conservancy provided resources to this project that helped fund monitoring, staff time for landowner outreach and financial incentives for landowners. Support from private sources allowed us to reduce the risk for landowners to try new management practices, which often cannot be funded through public dollars. These private donations were used to secure additional public funding for the project from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Adam Dowling
District Conservationist, Dane County
USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service

Jason Thomas
District Conservationist, Green County
USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service

How did the Natural Resources Conservation Service support this project?

Adam Dowling: The Dane County Land and Water Resources Department submitted a Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative (CCPI) grant proposal to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) requesting financial assistance for landowners willing to enter into agreements to address phosphorus losses from farming operations in the Pleasant Valley Watershed in southwestern Dane County. CCPI is a voluntary conservation initiative that enables conservation programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) and Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP) for landowners. Twenty-two operators entered into contract agreements to implement practices such as stream bank protection, stream habitat improvement, nutrient management, no-till and barnyard runoff structures. A little more than $520,300 went to farmers and another $70,260 went to Dane County for staff time to work with farmers.

NRCS staff provided oversight for the contract agreements, assisted partners in evaluating the effectiveness of the practices applied and encouraged landowners to implement additional conservation activities that would result in a holistic resource management system addressing all resource concerns.

Laura Ward Good
Associate Scientist, Department of Soil Science
University of Wisconsin-Madison

How did the Soil Science Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison contribute its science expertise to this project?

Laura Ward Good: This project tested whether we could identify and change management on the fields contributing the most phosphorus and sediment to the stream and, consequently, get real improvements in stream water quality. The assessment we used to rank fields by their runoff phosphorus contributions is called the Wisconsin Phosphorus (P) Index and it, along with field erosion rates, is calculated in a software program called SNAP-Plus. The P Index and SNAP-Plus were developed by the UW-Madison Soil Science Department. In this project, we used the P Index both for targeting high contributing fields and for assessing the effects of management changes on runoff phosphorus losses. Working with our project partners in the Biological Systems Engineering Department and at the U.S. Geological Survey, we developed easy-to-use assessment models for determining how reductions in phosphorus and sediment leaving fields would affect watershed outputs. These models helped determine how much and what types of management changes needed to take place at the field scale to achieve watershed water quality goals.

Curt Diehl, Pat Sutter and Duane Wagner
Dane County Department of Land and Water Resources

Todd Jenson, County Conservationist
Green County Land and Water Conservation Department

What is the county’s role with landowners in this project?

Pat Sutter, County Conservationist: We worked closely with landowners on a handful of farm fields in the watershed that were contributing the majority of the nutrients and sediment to the stream. We met with the landowners about their farm practices and developed and put into place recommendations for how they might do things differently to reduce nutrient and sediment loss into streams. For example, some decided to switch some of their fields from a more intensive tillage system, where most of the crop residue from the previous year is removed, to no-till where seeds are planted directly into the residue remaining from last year’s crop. Less soil disturbance means less chance of soil and nutrients washing into streams when it rains. We also kept track of changes in land use that took place. For example, lands once in the Conservation Reserve Program were planted to row crops of corn and soybeans. Our staff met with the operators to make sure they followed a conservation plan to minimize nutrient runoff.

Jim Leverich
On-Farm Research Coordinator
University of Wisconsin Extension

Tom Cox
Professor, Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics
University of Wisconsin-Madison

How did you work with landowners to analyze the economic impacts of proposed management changes?

Jim Leverich: We visited farms in the pilot area helping landowners implement practices that have the greatest potential to reduce the contribution of nutrients to streams and improve farm profitability. We talked about their crop rotations, planting techniques, how they handle manure and other management practices to identify best management practices (BMPs) that could improve environmental and economic performance. Together we did a financial inventory of the costs associated with the different enterprise parts of their farm operations like dairy, hay and corn. We wanted to see how the management alternatives we proposed would impact their bottom line. Our goal was to choose those alternatives that would help reduce nutrient and soil losses and work well with their current farm operations to improve their profitability.

Becky Carvin and Dr. Faith Fitzpatrick
Physical Scientist and Research Hydrologist
U.S. Geological Survey

How was the U.S. Geological Survey involved in monitoring the results of the project?

Becky Carvin: We measured stream flow and precipitation and collected water samples to be analyzed for suspended sediment and total and dissolved phosphorus in the two sub-watersheds that were part of this pilot project—the one where we worked with farmers to make management changes (test watershed) and the other where no action was taken (control watershed). We started collecting data in 2007 so we could get two years of baseline data before any management practices were changed. We collected data as the changes were being made, and have continued monitoring in subsequent years. We wanted to be able to compare our data for both watersheds to see if there were any statistically significant differences in water quality between the test watershed and the control.

Faith Fitzpatrick: In addition to daily stream monitoring, we surveyed both watersheds and developed a sediment budget for each as a way to track sediment and nutrients from the fields through the watershed to the outlet. This information helped us better understand the delay between when farming practices were changed and when those improvements were seen in water quality. With one full year of data after implementation, these monitoring efforts are telling us that the changes farmers made are having a positive impact on water quality.

Jim Amrhein, Bob Hansis (retired) and Greg Searle
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

How was the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources involved in monitoring the results of the project?

Greg Searle, Section Chief, Monitoring and Management: We monitored the streams in both the test and control watersheds for the fish assemblage, habitat assessment and invertebrates. Determining what species of fish are in the stream and their abundance is our best indicator of stream health because we have a robust set of fish data across the state of Wisconsin. The results of this monitoring enable us to show how the stream compares with other streams in the region and to evaluate the impacts of the targeted conservation practices put into place in the test watershed.

Anita Thompson, John Panuska and Jasmeet Lamba
UW-Madison Biological Systems Engineering

How did UW-Madison Biological Systems Engineering contribute its science expertise to this project?

Jasmeet Lamba: We estimated the relative proportion of in-stream sediments and sediment-bound phosphorus coming from different sources in the watershed that traveled downstream and was recorded at the USGS water quality gage. Some of the sediment and phosphorus entered the stream in runoff from farm fields; in other cases, where land use is dominated by woodlands and grasslands, it came from the streambed and banks. The more cropland there was in a watershed, the greater the contribution of in-stream sediments from farm fields. Also, knowing the role that the streambed and banks played in storing or releasing phosphorus helped us determine the lag time required before we could expect to see an improvement in water quality in the test watershed.