Who can forget the explosion of interest in conservation in the late 1960s and early 70s?  The hot topics included the Cuyahoga River catching on fire in Ohio in 1969, a tetanus shot being needed if you fell into the Potomac River in the nation’s capital, smog in large cities being so bad you couldn’t see or breathe well, acid rain causing trees to lose their leaves, and the book Silent Spring from 1962 bringing pesticides like DDT to the common discussion.

The first Earth Day was in 1970.  I remember the magazine Mother Earth News, which started in 1970, and really enjoying their take on tackling conservation issues with a down-to-earth, back-to-the-land approach to try and make some difference.  Also in 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created by Richard Nixon.  The EPA took two different approaches to how they regulated air and water with the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.

Air was regulated by setting maximum airborne limits on six chemicals that are a problem to human health.  Each state had to develop and implement a plan to prevent those six chemicals from getting into the air.  The EPA approved and monitored the progress on those plans and created standards for all sorts of factories, powerplants, vehicles, even paints and stoves in our homes, to protect air quality.  Low volatile organic compound (VOC) paints are one of those outcomes. When I was working in Los Angeles in the early 2000s, locals would point to the mountains nearby, now clearly visible, and explain that months would go by in the 1970s where they couldn’t even see them!

Water, on the other hand, was regulated by reducing pollution from ‘point sources’ – things like factories or water treatment plants, where you can walk up to a pipe of effluent, measure it, and see how polluted that discharge is.  The thought was that if you reduced the amount of pollution from these point sources, the water quality would get better.  And it worked!  It was very successful in reducing pollution that causes rivers to burn, but it didn’t address ‘non-point sources.’  This is everything else that goes into surface water.  That is mainly from farms, roadways, and lawns, and is usually caused by rain and snow washing chemicals and debris into the streams.

Still, the results of the Clean Water Act were dramatic.  We don’t experience burning rivers any more, and fish and aquatic life are recovering in many of our streams, but our progress has slowed and new water pollutants need to be addressed.

I’ve had the chance to measure water quality in our Driftless streams for almost five years.  One of the questions I often get is ‘How is our water quality here?’  When I’m out doing water sampling and see a kayaker, fisherman, or swimmer, I’m happy to share that our stream water quality is pretty good.  It’s not perfect, and I wouldn’t drink it, but for fishing, swimming, watering farm fields, or watering cattle, it’s generally very good.

To understand water quality better, it helps to look back at our history.  In the late 1800s and early 1900s, settlers brought European farming methods here, and erosion became a huge problem.  In rain storms, railroads were swamped many times over, bridge repairs were often the number one cost for townships, and towns and low-lying farms were continually lost or buried by this eroded sediment.

In the 1930s, the Soil Conservation Service (now the NRCS, the Natural Resources Conservation Service) helped find some solutions.  This is the work by folks such as Hugh Hammond Bennett and Aldo Leopold, which resulted in contour strips and other conservation practices in the 1930 and 1940s.  Coon Creek, near Coon Valley, is famously the first watershed that had this work done.  Some of the most iconic ‘branding photos’ of our area are the ridgetop farms with contour strips of corn and alfalfa, a direct result of this early conservation work.

But still, thirty years later from that work, our streams were still unsuitable for trout.  In the 1960s and 70s, the fish just weren’t able to thrive in our streams.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has done numerous studies on water quality in the area.

  • A 1956 DNR study said of the West Fork Kickapoo River said ‘…this is not good trout water…Over 7,700 feet of stream were surveyed and no trout were captured…’
  • In 1958 John Brasch of the Wisconsin Conservation Department (now DNR) said ‘Coulee region streams are in extremely poor shape because of watershed management problems…it is likely that trout stream fishing in the coulee region may practically disappear in the future.’
  • A 1960 Vernon County Soil and Water Conservation Annual Report said of Warner Creek ‘…it is apparent that natural reproduction (of trout) is limited or non-existent. Trout fishing is entirely dependent upon trout stocking.’
  • In 1975, the DNR said of our Driftless area ‘…continued stocking of brown trout yearlings in the spring….and land acquisition and habitat improvement are not recommended…’

Fast forward 25 years and in 1999 the West Fork Kickapoo was named by Trout Unlimited as one of America’s 100 Best Trout Streams, and Outside Magazine named it as one of the best trout streams to visit.

There’s no question that the contour strips and work done by the Soil Conservation Service in the 1940s helped farmers hold onto their soil and reduce runoff.  It took a long time to see those benefits in the streams below, as they slowly recovered.  It took new farming practices, and in-stream habitat improvement projects in the 1980s and 90s to really impact trout, though.

In addition to contour strips, implementation of no-till farming has been a big help.  Instead of plowing fields into bare dirt each spring prior to planting, new equipment allows seed planters to go right through last year’s corn stubble or soybean residue with a new crop.  Erosion can be dramatically reduced when rain comes because with no-till, it’s no longer bare dirt for that critical spring six weeks, it’s the old crop remnants still holding the soil in place.

More advanced stream restoration projects have helped, too.  We are fortunate to have had some local, visionary stream-health professionals who helped in the 1980s and 90s.  They preserved native wild trout instead of just relying on fishery-raised fish, which didn’t have the innate skills or wily-ness to survive like native fish do.  New methods of streambank remediation allowed flooded streams to spread out into their floodplains, slowing down and reducing water energy to minimize damage during floods.  There are also new, more natural ways to provide fish places to hide in the water, like using submerged tree trunks.

Now, there are many new things happening in our area to help with surface water quality.  Prairie strips on field edges serve as a buffer to filter runoff water and slow it down well before it reaches the streams.  Cover crops are planted right into growing corn and soybeans using drones and helicopters so that when those crops are harvested, there is another layer of living plants underneath which holds the soil and adds nutrients so even less fertilizer is needed.

Successful trout fishing is only one possible measure of stream health, but it is a $1B industry in our area, providing jobs through several area fly shops, fishing guides, restaurants, bars, hotels, and gas stations.

So, compared to the 1920s when gullies were 100’ deep and entire railroads were covered in erosion runoff (several times!) and the 1970s when trout couldn’t even live in our streams, we are living in a golden age of water quality.  There are things that we need to keep working on, though.

The DNR and University of Wisconsin have a program called Water Action Volunteers, or WAV (pronounced ‘wave’), which monitors our local streams.  Locally, the program is coordinated by Valley Stewardship Network.  There are a couple of trainings each spring, so keep an eye out if you’re interested.

They’ll teach you how to sample six different metrics of stream health:

  • Temperature
  • Flow
  • Transparency
  • Dissolved Oxygen Level
  • Aquatic Macroinvertebrate Identification
  • Stream Bank Assessment

Each of these is important in different ways, but basically there’s a range for each measurement that is associated with a good quality stream.  Macroinvertebrates, the ‘bugs’ that live in the stream, are an example of a general stream health metric, since they depend on all of the measurements to be good to survive – temperature, flow, food, and shelter.  Some macroinvertebrates are quite sensitive to pollution, so if you find those species in the water, the water must be pretty clean, since even small amounts of pollution will kill them.

A little more advanced (and expensive) than the WAV training is to sample for phosphorus and nitrogen.

Phosphorus is associated with soil erosion – it binds to soil particles, so when you see murky, cloudy water with a lot of sediment, it is often high in phosphorus.  Too much phosphorus leads to algae blooms and the hypoxic ‘dead zone’ in the Gulf of Mexico (all of our water ends up going down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico).

The riskiest times for erosion are when soil is uncovered, with no living plants in it – typically in the spring before the crop comes up, or in the fall after the crop is harvested.  An acre of soil, at the thickness of a dime, is about 6 tons.  If there’s a field on a hillside that’s only 20 acres (small by today’s standards) and it loses an amount of soil equal to just the thickness of that dime during of a rain event, that’s 120 tons of soil rushing down the hillside towards a stream!  Just the thickness of a dime, not even noticeable, compared to when we see gullies or soil rushing off of a field – imagine how much that must be!  Different techniques like contour strips, no-till planting, cover crops, leaving as much crop residue as possible, and prairie strips around the edge of fields all help save the soil for the farmer and reduce phosphorus in our streams.

Nitrogen, though, behaves differently than phosphorus.  It dissolves readily in water, turns into nitrates, and soaks down to nourish plants.  If there’s too much rain or if excess nitrogen is applied in fertilizer, the nitrates continue past the plant roots, and down to our drinking water supplies.  In some parts of Vernon and Crawford counties, recent studies have shown 25% of the well water that our neighbors use to drink, cook, and bathe is unsafe to consume, due to too much nitrate.

In our body, nitrates affect the blood’s ability to move oxygen.  For babies, that’s ‘blue baby syndrome,’ where the lower oxygen available for living turns the baby’s skin blue, along with heart and breathing problems.  For adults, excess nitrates in our water can lead to nausea, headaches, colon cancer and thyroid problems.

Most of this nitrogen in our drinking water comes from fertilizer, according to numerous reports from the Minnesota DNR.  Farmers need to be able to apply fertilizers to increase yields, but we can do better with the timing and the amount of fertilizer applied.

The University of Wisconsin has some outstanding computer tools to help farmers utilize nitrogen more efficiently.  It is challenging, though.  A farmer needs to know the soil type he’s planting in (which can change even in the same field); how much nitrogen is already in the soil; how much nitrogen is optimal for the crop being grown; when the best time is to apply nitrogen; and, of course, perfectly predict the weather!  Rain right after nitrogen is applied can just wash it all into the groundwater before it is used by the plants.  With all of that uncertainty, it’s no surprise that folks will add ‘just a little extra’ to try and maximize their yield and family income.  In fact, nitrogen applied as fertilizer is up over 400% since 1960.

In addition to all of those water quality measurements, new chemicals which weren’t even thought of 15 or 20 years ago are showing some worrying initial signs.  Neonicitinoids (“Neonics”) are a synthetic nicotine class of insecticide which at first seemed like a dream product.  They are applied directly to the seed, eliminating the need for spraying, and so reduced a significant source of overdrift, which can affect other insects.  I can still remember watching crop dusters applying pesticides on our fields and getting covered with overspray, and my mom yelling at me to go get into the shower right away.  Neonics were hoped to do away with that problem.

Now we’re discovering some of the dangers of neonics – that the coating dust can cause health dangers for the farmers; that much of the coating just washes away and doesn’t help the plant defend itself; that over 80% of the time the neonics don’t increase crop yield (but add cost); and that they easily transfer into our waterways, harming the insects and fish in the water.  Remember that DDT that Rachel Carson wrote about in 1962?  Neonics are 10,000 times more toxic.

PFAS, or forever chemicals, are another ‘new’ pollutant hazard.  They are quite dangerous to people and are a manufacturing by-product in waste water and from firefighting chemicals.  The city of La Crosse has a significant PFAS issue they’re working through, as do many other parts of our state.

All of that isn’t to forget bacteria, too.  Bacteria in our water, such as E. Coli, can lead to serious gastrointestinal problems and diseases.  There are two main sources of this bacteria:  septic systems in our rural homes and farm animal waste.  According to a 2021 report from the US Census Bureau, about 30% of all US homes have a septic system.  Minnesota and Wisconsin have provided similar amounts of funding to private landowners to repair or replace septic systems, but in very different ways.  Minnesota has provided about $100M over 30+ years with funding provided by a Federal fund.  Wisconsin has also provided about $100M in the same period using fees from statewide septic system programs.  Unfortunately, the Wisconsin program was ended by the legislature in 2023, though our Governor reauthorized it for 2024.  A long-term solution to continue support for septic system upgrades is needed here in Wisconsin.

During floods, much of that septic effluent and associated bacteria is flushed into nearby streams.  Health officials are adamant about not going into or playing in flooded areas, because you expose yourself to human waste bacteria.

Another source of bacteria is from animal waste.  Open manure storage facilities are required to have an extra 12” of headspace on manure pits so that if heavy rainfalls happen, they have extra holding capacity before they overflow.  There’s considerable debate about whether those open manure pits should have rain protection or higher headspace reserves with the recent record-breaking rainfalls we have had.  And of course, if manure is spread on a field as fertilizer and it is sloped ground, or frozen ground, or a rainfall event comes along, much of that manure and bacteria can flush into streams.  The Wisconsin DNR has a very good computer tool for farmers to figure out when and where to apply manure (and when not to).

Here are a few things you can do to help maintain and improve water quality:

  • If you have a private well, get your water tested! If the water is unsafe, get it fixed.
  • Get engaged and become a Water Action Volunteer to help monitor streams nearby. You can find information at Valley Stewardship Network or www.wateractionvolunteers.org
  • Encourage your state representatives to enact ground water nitrogen limits and PFAS rules immediately. The DNR has developed criteria which are currently held up in the legislature.
  • Encourage your state representatives to also extend support for repairing and upgrading rural septic systems.
  • Keep your septic system in top working order.

Even with all of those concerns, though, our water quality is pretty good.  The work that has been done since the 1930s has made great strides in improving this fantastic natural resource.  I don’t hesitate to encourage folks to go out to one of our local streams and rivers and fish, canoe, swim, and revel in the beauty that’s here!

NOTE:  Many thanks to Dave Krier, staff member at Valley Stewardship Network and writer in his spare time, for allowing us to share this essay of his about the current state of water quality in the area.  Cover photo of Tainter Creek by Kate Bergan.