Partnering with local watershed councils to find water quality solutions in Western Wisconsin

Story by Dan Zerr

I work with many groups and partnerships who are working toward cleaner rivers and lakes. Specifically, near Eau Claire, Wisconsin we have problems with harmful algal blooms in many of our waters. Two of the groups I work closely with are the Red Cedar River Water Quality Partnership, and the Eau Claire River Watershed Coalition.

Both of these groups are working in watersheds that have impounded lakes along main rivers that suffer greatly from harmful algal blooms. In some instances, the rivers and streams themselves have phosphorus levels that are consistently above water quality standards throughout the growing season.

While there are differences in some of the specific issues and problem-solving approaches of the two groups, they both focus on working with agricultural producers in these mostly rural watersheds. Addressing urban and lakefront issues are certainly part of the solution, but the fact that both watersheds are mostly dominated by rural and agricultural landscapes means that farmers and their land management are integral to any efforts to improve water quality.

A soil pit featured at a field day at a Red Cedar Demonstration Farm in 2017.

My role with both these groups is mostly as a facilitator/coordinator; acting as an organizer and hub of resource information. I plan and facilitate the regular meetings for the groups, help plan and carry out events, share events and research of interest to the groups, and take and distribute minutes from the meetings. Our meetings are focused on finding ways for partners to cooperate to obtain resources that will help them work toward the goals we have laid out in our HUC8 “Nine Key Element” watershed plans. I was the principle author of “A River Runs Through Us: A Water Quality Strategy for the Land and Waters of the Red Cedar River Basin”, a plan that has been in place of over three years. While I did not author “Healthy Soils and Healthy Waters: A Community Strategy for the Eau Claire River Watershed”, I was part of the team that put that plan together, and took the facilitator/coordinator role when the plan was approved in 2017.

The plans are both ten-year plans, focused on long-term solutions to water quality issues. A principle focus of early work is in organizing local groups to help facilitate peer-to-peer learning and developing a sense of civic engagement and civic governance among watershed residents. Regular meetings of both groups include meeting evaluation, where partners rate each meeting on a scale of 1 to 5, making sure the partners are all satisfied with how the group is working together and how meetings are conducted. Efforts thus far have led to the formation of farmer-led councils, establishment of demonstration farms, added staff to county land conservation offices, on-site workshops, service learning projects for students, and annual undergraduate research projects focused on everything from water quality and the economics of clean water to surveying land owners’ willingness to change management techniques.  In many areas of the watersheds, we have seen increases in the use of cover crops and no-till farming, and a raised awareness of the connections between land management and water quality.

Dan Zerr, University of Wisconsin-Madison Division of Extension
Daniel Zerr has been a natural resources educator with University of Wisconsin – Extension for 11 years, based in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.  He has a BS in biology from Northern State University in Aberdeen, SD, and an MS in environmental science from Indiana University, Bloomington, IN.  He previously worked as an environmental scientist for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, and as a research associate at the University of Missouri in Columbia, MO.  When not working with natural resource issues, he can be seen playing guitar, bass and singing in various bands in and around the Chippewa Valley in Wisconsin.

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