Runoff research continues along Dry Run
Farmers in the Dry Run creek Watershed, to the east of New Richmond, are working with experts from the University of Wisconsin-Discovery Farms program to help improve the water quality of the Willow and St. Croix rivers.
Since 2010, Discovery Farms has been gathering data from monitoring sites and solar weather stations in agricultural fields and along the Dry Run Creek bed.
According to Todd Prill, Dry Run Creek Watershed coordinator, the measurements gathered include water quality of field runoff, soil moisture, air temperature, precipitation and more.
Dry Run Creek is one of the major sources for phosphorus runoff in the Willow River. And the Willow has been shown to be a major contributor to rising phosphorus levels on the St. Croix River, a federally protected Wild and Scenic Riverway.
Phosphorus is a huge problem in rivers and lakes as too much of it promotes vegetation growth and harms overall water quality. It can also have a big impact on fish and the aesthetics of a body of water.
When the Dry Run project began, experts were convinced that runoff from farm fields in the Dry Run area was largely to blame for the phosphorus problem. The monitoring was designed to determine if that hypothesis was true.
"Part of solving a problem is you have to figure out where you're at," Prill said.
Even with all the work during the past three years, Discovery Farms officials are not much closer to solving the mystery.
While farm fields (due to soil erosion and fertilizer runoff) contribute to the water quality problems, Prill said significant bank erosion along Dry Run Creek also appears to be part of the issue. Dry Run doesn't have much water in it during much of the year, but when heavy rains come the creek fills up and erosion spikes.
Other contributing factors to the phosphorus issue include decaying leaves and woody debris along the Willow River, as well as cattle manure found in fields near Dry Run Creek.
"It's not as simple as it was first thought," Prill explained.
Even though the findings remain inconclusive, Prill said he continues to work with farmers in the Dry Run Watershed to help them develop conservation practices that will reduce the amount of soil and phosphorus that is washed downstream.
Prill can be found on local farms two or three times a week during the spring and summer, offering ideas to producers and identifying things that local farmers are doing well.
"It's good that they're getting feedback about the things they're doing well too," he said. "I see a lot of progress being made."
Prill said about 80 percent of farmers in the expansive Dry Run watershed have been cooperative over the past three years. He said the level of cooperation has been impressive.
The ultimate goal, he said, is to guide producers to do what they can to curb the runoff, and let the rest take care of itself.
Prill said he has no way to compel farmers to institute conservation practices, such as reducing fertilizer use or instituting no-till or low-till efforts, but most are willing to give things a try.
"And we want it to be economically feasible for everyone," Prill said. "They have to keep making money, so they can stay in business."
John Van Dyk and Brad Dorwin are two a Dry Run Watershed farmers that have been part of the Discovery Farms project since its beginning.
Both say it's been interesting to see the data confirm what they thought was true for many years, that farm fields are not the only thing contributing to the water quality issues in the Willow River.
"It was always easy to blame farmers," Van Dyk said. "But farmers aren't going to over fertilize, because that's our profit. And we don't want the soil to erode, so most of us are aware of conservation practices like no-till that doesn't ruin the ground."
As the Discovery Farms program heads toward its completion in 2017, Van Dyk said most Dry Run farmers are willing to do what it takes to cut phosphorus runoff.
Dorwin agreed, noting that the Discovery Farms approach is well received because they offer suggestions to producers rather than force changes.
"They try to help us make a profit, while trying to keep our land in place," he said.
Even with the added awareness and effort, Dorwin said unexpected weather events can throw a monkey wrench into the whole project.
"Even if you do everything right, Mother Nature still controls the results," he said.
For more information about the Dry Run effort, contact Prill at 715-225-0862 or visit www.uwdiscoveryfarms.org.