Who's Minding the Water? { Excerpt }

“We need citizen monitors,” Wisconsin DNR water quality biologist Cindy Koperski, says. “The streams belong to the people of Wisconsin. The people are part owner, part steward, our eyes and ears.” She isn't too concerned about where people go to test. “Wherever we get data it's more than what we have now.”

Data from 45 citizen monitoring groups is stored in a database managed by Water Action Volunteers (WAV), which is supported by the University of Wisconsin-Extension. WAV estimates that about 1900 Wisconsinites regularly collect readings on the state's waterways.

The WAV database also contains observations on weather, terrain, and wildlife. A 2002 entry for Hall's Branch Creek in Crawford County noted, “Horses are now crossing in the riffle area.” Two years later: “Horses are gone now.” Though the comments might seem beside the point, this citizen scientist probably knew that the primary threat to Wisconsin's water quality is livestock—though normally cattle, and not horses, are the concern.

“Manure is our most pervasive, persistent, and vexing water quality problem,” Gordon Stevenson, WDNR's Runoff Management Division chief, told a gathering of southwest Wisconsin residents this spring. As with the rest of the state, in the Driftless area fecal matter from meat and dairy operations contaminates streams with excess nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, plus harmful bacteria. With high nutrient levels comes a lack of oxygen. When oxygen disappears, aquatic life dies.

Many runoff problems occur when manure is liquified, then spread on fields before a significant rain, often before the ground has thawed. In March 2005 multiple farmers in Vernon County spread manure on frozen fields, then rain washed the manure into the nearby Jersey Valley Lake and the headwaters of the Kickapoo's West Fork. Thousands of bluegill, largemouth bass, black crappie and yellow perch were killed. None of the farmers was fined.

Other farming practices, such as row cropping, also contribute to deteriorating stream quality. But because of the state's strong agricultural lobby, Michael Miller, WDNR stream ecologist, says, “Things that are painfully obvious that should be done [to ensure water quality] aren't being done. Ag. has carte blanche.” Conservation officials agree on this point. Stevenson told residents concerned about a newly proposed concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO)—defined as any farm with at least 1,000 animal units, or about 700 cows—“Few environmental regulations apply to farmers in this state.”

While some guidelines for manure storage and use do apply to CAFOs, the state cannot limit small farm manure spreading. That would require rewriting current legislation, a daunting and time-consuming process. It's also politically unpopular. “Every farmer says, 'If you [restrict manure spreading] it'll be the death knell,'” Koperski says. “Legislators won't go against that. Barring legislation, all we have is common sense.”

Midwest Fly Fishing, July 2009