What is a Watershed Council?

Watershed councils are groups of landowners that come together to improve or preserve the condition of their watershed in a non-regulatory, voluntary, and locally organized fashion. Research has shown that these types of groups can be as, or more, effective as regulation when it comes to implementing changes on the landscape that improve water quality. 

West Fork Neighbors Watershed Council Meeting

Craig Thompson, WI DNR, presents on birds to residents of the West Fork Watershed Neighbors Council at the September 9, 2018 gathering.

How to Develop a Watershed Council

Top Three Tips for Starting a Farmer-Led Watershed Council – from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Wisconsin Farmer-Led Waatrshed Council Project:

  1. Find 2-3 committed, conservation-minded farmers that will be in it for the long haul.
  2. Recruit a skilled organizer.
  3. Be patient — this is a process that takes a lot of time and commitment.

For an in-depth description of how to start a Farmer-Led Watershed Council, find the “Start-up Guide” at this link: Getting Started with Farmer-Led Watersheds.  This guide was put together by the University of Wisconsin-Madison for their watershed council project.

Tainter Creek Watershed Council Field Day

June 2, 2018 Stream Day hosted by the Tainter Creek Farmer-led Watershed Council. Ben Wojahn, Vernon County Land & Water Conservationist, provided a rainfall simulator demonstration to show the run off under varying levels of ground cover. He is pictured here with several members of the Council.

The Formation of a Farmer-Led Watershed Council

 Since 2016, Valley Stewardship Network has been facilitating and assisting in the development of local watershed councils.The focal point of our current efforts includes Tainter Creek (Kickapoo River), West Fork (Kickapoo River), South Fork (Bad Axe River), and upper Kickapoo River watersheds. The work in these watersheds is being spearheaded by Matt Emslie, and we are actively partnering with Vernon County Land and Water Conservation District (LWCD) on these projects.

We first started conceptualizing the idea of local watershed councils in the summer of 2016. Encouraging and facilitating change on the landscape and on farms is as much of a social challenge as it is a technical challenge. For the most part, we have a pretty good understanding of the technical steps required to effect positive change in water quality. The part that is much more difficult is navigating the social conditions that affect adoption of Best Management Practices (BMPs). For this reason, we determined that we needed to work at the smallest geographic scale possible, where the social fabric and local relationships were identifiable and distinct. We determined that working at the HUC (Hydrologic Unit Code) 12-scale would be the most appropriate for the goals we had in mind.

But which HUC 12 watersheds would be the most appropriate to try to develop a model for watershed councils? Because we knew we were, at least regionally, potentially starting something new and trying to create a model, we wanted to set it up for success as much as possible. If this first attempt was successful then the hope was that other groups might come together either through our efforts or on their own because they could see that there were other functioning, existing groups. Probably the most crucial decision we made at the outset was determining that choosing a watershed that had the greatest potential for strong leadership among farmers rather than because it had the greatest water quality need was the most important factor in deciding which watershed to pour our initial efforts into. We asked for input from our local partners (National Resources Conservation Service [NRCS] and Vernon County LWCD) that had strong relationships with farmers in local watersheds to help us identify watersheds with strong farmer leaders. Their help was invaluable in this process.  Without their assistance, we would have had a much more difficult and slow go of it in our initial efforts. Through our conversations they helped us to identify not only potential watersheds but also individual farmers that might be interested in this type of group or process.

Tainter Creek Ray Archuleta presentation

Tainter Creek Farmer-Led Watershed Council brought Ray Archuleta, renowned soil health expert, to the region July 25 & 26, 2018. Approximately 160 area residents attended the event.

Getting a New Neighbors Watershed Coucil off the Ground

In 2017, the first steps were taken to form a “Watershed Neighbors Group” to identify common conservation concerns and interests. We started by inviting folks with running water that drains into the West Fork between Bloomingdale and Liberty to a potluck gathering. Attendees voted on the top three conservation topics to focus on: flooding/erosion control, forest management, and bird/non-game habitat.

In 2018, the West Fork Watershed Neighbors Council held three committee meetings and one large potluck and beer gathering with guest speakers. Over 600 landowners, those whose properties drain into the West Fork between Bloomingdale and Liberty, were invited to participate, and were surveyed for their interests in conservation topics.

Over 65 people responded to the survey. 22 of them requested and received property site visits from professionals to advise them on their greatest concerns. Over 75 folks came to the September gathering and heard two professional presentations, one on birds and one on invasive plants. It was a great time to socialize, meet new neighbors, share food, and drink some good beer.

West Fork Watershed Council outdoor gathering

West Fork Neighbors Watershed Council meeting participants ready themselves to see conservation work at Nature Nooks Retreat.