Yahara Lakes

Sand County Foundation provides financial support to two important watershed-scale nutrient management projects in Dane County, Wisconsin. Each of these represents, in its own way, a major step forward for the cause of improved management of privately owned working lands and better water quality.


Yahara WINs Watershed Adaptive Management Option (WAMO) Pilot Project

The Watershed Adaptive Management Option (WAMO) is a provision of Wisconsin’s phosphorus rule. It gives sewerage districts around the state an alternative path to reduce phosphorus levels in surface waters, something they’re required to do by the Clean Water Act – instead of removing phosphorus exclusively through technology at treatment plants, they can attempt to keep phosphorus out of the water in the first place.

This kind of pollution prevention requires a plan to engage sources of phosphorus runoff that are not regulated by the Clean Water Act: small municipalities, golf courses, farms. The Yahara WINs pilot project is the first attempt to implement this kind of plan to reduce runoff and phosphorus loads throughout the Madison Lakes area (sometimes called the Yahara Watershed, after the river that connects the lakes around Madison). Sand County Foundation is providing funding for the water quality monitoring that will document whether progress in reducing phosphorus is being made in the pilot project area.

The pilot project is being conducted in the Sixmile Creek subwatershed north of Lake Mendota, the largest of Madison's lakes. This subwatershed contains the village of Waunakee, but is mostly farmland, including dairy and cash grain farms. Sand County Foundation financial support leveraged additional funds from the United States Geological Survey, which operates two monitoring sites north and south of Waunakee and two more in Dorn Creek, nearer the lake.

The collection of so-called baseline data, begun before large-scale land management changes are made in the pilot project, is an important purpose of the water quality monitoring stations in Sixmile. Baseline data forms a picture of the water quality problem the project is attempting to address, and is crucial to efforts to measure progress. As the project proceeds, the effectiveness of changes in agricultural land measurement can be measured over time.

There is no guarantee that reductions in runoff will show up immediately in lower phosphorus levels in the watershed. Generations of manure applications have left large amounts of phosphorus in the soil, including in stream banks and wetlands near the two stream channels in this subwatershed. Cover crops, increased use of no-till cultivation, improvement of vegetated buffer strips and other nutrient management practices adopted as part of the pilot project can reduce the amount of phosphorus added to the soil, but not the amount of phosphorus that is already there.

Man and nature operate using different clocks. Rapid results in a project like this one can’t be assured in advance. But the WAMO framework is an innovative attempt to solve a puzzle people have been trying and failing to solve since the Clean Water Act was passed 40 years ago: reducing non-point sources’ contributions of a key pollutant without regulating them directly.

This pilot project will be closely studied around the country by municipalities facing the same water quality issues we in the Madison lakes community are attempting to master. Its success could open a path to less expensive, more ecologically sound water pollution control for sewerage districts and their ratepayers throughout the United States.

Sand County Foundation is honored to participate in this project of national significance.

Download a map of the pilot project area (PDF)


Waunakee Marsh/Pheasant Branch MRBI Project

Sand County Foundation was instrumental in the development of a legislative initiative for what was then the 2007 Farm Bill, called the Discovery Watershed Demonstration Program. This would have created up to 30 watershed-scale nutrient management projects in the Mississippi River Basin, to demonstrate and develop better ways of keeping nitrogen and other nutrients on the land and out of the water.

The Discovery Watershed Demonstration Program fell victim to struggles within Congress over the shape of the Farm Bill and its Conservation Title. However, most of the ideas behind it reappeared in 2009's Mississippi River Basin Initiative (MRBI) of the Natural Resources Conservation Service. MRBI provides funding for several dozen watershed-scale nutrient management projects in Mississippi River Basin states, to accomplish the same objectives the Discovery Watershed program would have.

Sand County Foundation provides financial support to one of these projects, operated by Dane County’s Land Conservation Division. The project area is north of Lake Mendota, directly west of the Yahara WINS pilot project area in two small subwatersheds known as Waunakee Marsh and Pheasant Branch. Within the two subwatersheds' 38,173 acres are 12,280 acres of cropland and thousands of dairy cattle. 

NRCS MRBI funds pay for cost-sharing contracts with farmers who agree to apply or install nutrient management practices approved through one of the agency’s agricultural conservation programs. Sand County Foundation and other non-governmental funders pay for project staff, water quality monitoring, and other expenses for which NRCS’s own funds cannot be used.

The Dane County MRBI project began in 2010. In addition to the ongoing, important work of assembling a set of baseline data on water quality and agricultural land management practices, MRBI project staff have used the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to get nutrient management practices applied or installed by farmers in the Waunakee March and Pheasant Branch subwatersheds.

MRBI projects like the one in Dane County should demonstrate how to reduce nitrogen runoff and its impact on the Mississippi River watershed and the Gulf of Mexico. 

Sand County Foundation’s support of the Dane County MRBI project continues our record of advancing new, better ways of working toward improved water quality and a healthy farm economy.

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