LSRWA Hosts Sugar River Watershed Summit

By Susan Lehnhardt

On a Saturday fit for cleaning out the garden, burning a prairie, and spreading manure, a small crowd of forty resisted the allure of 70-degree weather to gather inside and talk about water and agriculture’s role in its future.  

This was the Lower Sugar River Watershed Association’s annual meeting held April 8 at the Brodhead Library.  It was the organization’s sixth annual meeting, since forming in 2011.

This year’s program—Charting a Course to Clean and Abundant Water with Agriculture—continued the conversation started at last year’s summit.  The focus then was on the scale and scope of impaired waters in the basin—more than 200 stream miles with sediment and phosphorus levels that exceed limits for healthy fish and swimmable waters.  

Despite the successes of the Clean Water Act over the past 30 years to staunch the polluting emissions from discrete stacks and discharge pipes, there remains the problem of polluted runoff from large agricultural landscapes.  It’s a problem that is more challenging to pinpoint and regulate.  The number of basin wells that approach or exceed acceptable nitrate levels from agricultural and residential sources attest to how deeply the problem resides.

A sobering analogy of the agricultural problem has sometimes been stated as, “We’ve been driving a semi truck down a narrow alley for the past hundred years or so with no room to turn around; now we have to back the truck out.”  Faced with that formidable task, the sticky question is how do we get to clean water and who is going to do it?  

The best solutions appear to lie within agriculture itself.  And many farmers would agree.  At the 2016 summit we learned about the efforts of voluntary Producer Led Watershed Councils beginning to form in other parts of the state and region.  Local municipalities spoke of exploring innovative investments in upstream water quality projects with agricultural partners following new state rules for water quality trading to meet waste treatment regulations.  

At this year’s summit, glimmers of hope intensified.  

  • Those Producer Led Watershed Councils are now forming in our own and neighboring basins, as we learned from speakers Kriss Marion South Central Chapter President of the Wisconsin Farmers Union and Meg Pokorny of the newly formed Pecatonica Pride Watershed Association.  Using grant funds from the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, they and collaborating farmers are gathering maps and assessing opportunities to implement on-the-ground watershed projects.  This ambitious group also won federal Resource Conservation Partnership Program funds to increase the cost-share dollars available to Pecatonica Pride farmers and to other producers and agricultural lands in Lafayette County.


  • Tonya Gratz of the Green County Land and Water Conservation Department explained the multi-year conservation project they are undertaking with Green County NRCS and partnering producers and landowners to restore Spring Creek, one of the impaired streams in the LSRW.  Using NRCS National Water Quality Initiative funds, they are implementing a program of aerially-seeded cover crops and streambank stabilization and buffer treatments to reduce sediment and nutrients from entering the stream.  Over 2,000 acres of cover crops were seeded in 2016.  Baseline and ongoing water quality monitoring by LSRWA citizen science volunteers in Spring Creek may help to measure change resulting from these conservation practices.  But, as we learn from Tonya and colleagues at their cover crop field day demonstrations, there are many other benefits for farmers using cover crops beyond improving local water quality.  Benefits like soil health, soil and nutrient retention, lower input costs, and more.  (See related story Green County Land & Water and Partners Receive Stewardship Award).


  • Steve Apfelbaum of Applied Ecological Services presented a pilot study he is undertaking in grassland regions with research partners and collaborating farmers and ranchers.  This study shows how regenerative land management practices—low disturbance cropping and adaptive multi-paddock grazing—can significantly increase soil carbon.  If brought to scale, these practices have the potential to store billions of metric tons of CO2 per year to help achieve climate resilience, improve water infiltration and retention, reduce erosion, improve soil health and human health, and create a carbon revenue stream for ranchers and farmers to improve farm economies. 


  • Sixth generation farmer and ecologist Jacob Marty of Green Fire Farm near Monticello shared his vision for farming.  This vision evolved out of his curiosity and passion for nature, and a conviction that nature offered important lessons for farmers.  This new way of farming requires creating a new paradigm—a new template or model—that more closely aligns with how nature works.  Farming in this way can create all the benefits of healthy natural communities, with healthy soils, functioning water and nutrient cycles, diverse and resilient landscapes, and healthy people.    For the past two years, Jacob and his father Jim Marty have worked to integrate practices that mimic nature such as permaculture and regenerative agriculture.   To see what this looks like on the land, go see for yourself at Green Fire Farm.


  • Jeanne Scherer, Water Resources Specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources brought to our attention the role invasive species play in compromising water quality and healthy landscapes, including risks for farmers.  The State works with partners and citizen scientists to guard against new invaders, as part of prevention and early detection of invasive species.  This approach is the most cost effective way to protect natural resources, local economies, and human health.

The day closed with a panel discussion and open conversation about agriculture’s role, especially at the scale of family farms, in meeting food security and nutritional needs for a growing population in the face of climate change and demands for industrialization of agriculture that are putting strains on global and local water supplies.  Ideas were offered about the importance of ensuring diversity in the scale of farming operations and securing food supplies at the local scale worldwide to achieve sustainability.  Organizing a local foodshed in our basin was offered as a way to bring this idea home.  

LSRWA wishes to thank the speakers and the generous donors who provided raffle items and participated in the raffle to raise funds for the organization.  To join the conversation about water resources and become a member and volunteer with LSRWA visit our website, or contact us at  LSRWA is a non-profit conservation organization located in Brodhead WI, dedicated to the care and enjoyment of our water resources.

Susan Lehnhardt is a founding board member and President of the Lower Sugar River Watershed Association.

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