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College, county partnership yields water quality data results for Sauk County
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College, county partnership yields water quality data results for Sauk County

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A partnership between the local university and county conservation workers has been the catalyst toward identifying solutions to water quality issues throughout Sauk County.

Stephen Swallen, assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville Baraboo Sauk County, said students have been able to provide data for concerns brought forward by county conservationists and how to address them for about four years.

“It’s really one of the great things our campus can offer,” Swallen said. “In order to really figure out where resources should go, how money should be spent to try to optimize things, you’ve got to know where the problem really does lie.”

Data includes charts outlining levels of contamination based on location and contamination figures in local bodies of water.

County Conservation Technician Serge Koenig and Swallen presented their information Friday at the campus library to a group of about 20 people looking to learn more about water quality issues in the county.

Major pollutants Koenig named were phosphorus and nitrogen. He also pointed to the largest contributor, non-point pollution, or contamination from multiple sources at several points, as key concerns for Sauk County. Non-point pollution comes from both urban and rural sources.

Water that can’t be absorbed into the soil, referred to as runoff, eventually finds its way into local tributaries, where it joins larger bodies of water. This can be a source of fertilizer contamination from places like golf courses, farms and residential yards because it carries contaminants into sources of drinking water. Agricultural use is the biggest contributor.

Koenig said in local water sources like the Baraboo River, the average span of water hypoxia, or uninhabitable water due to a low or depleted oxygen content, is about 6,000 square miles. The goal would be 3,000.

Phosphorus contamination

Swallen said phosphorus is a concern in Baraboo. While the preferable concentration of phosphorus in water would be 0.10 mg per liter, “Baraboo averages about twice that,” he said.

The state Department of Natural Resources updated its water quality standards in December 2010 to prohibit municipal wastewater plants from exceeding that number in the water released by facilities. According to the DNR website, phosphorus bolsters the growth of algae blooms, which can make water unsafe.

“Stop erosion first, that immediately stops phosphorus,” Koenig said.

A way to prevent runoff in fields would be to plant cover crops, a constant rotation of different plants that keep the soil more firmly compacted in the ground, and for farmers to embrace a grass farmland approach, he said.

Some in attendance voiced concern about farming practices being slow to change. Change without certainty regarding results could mean bankruptcy for those struggling to keep operating farms, Koenig said.

“We’re at a point where we’re probably going to have to change,” Koenig said. “None of us like to change. I know we think we like to change. … That is the understanding that, really, I think helped me. Once we lose our ability to influence people, we lose conservation.”

Marilyn and Jeff Froh, who live in rural Merrimac on a third-generation farm, attended the lecture to find out more about water quality. Jeff Froh said the couple had their well tested through the UW-Extension program and discovered problems with chloroform contamination in their drinking water supply.

“That is definitely a concern of ours,” Marilyn Froh said. “And we live very close to the golf course.”

The Frohs have a renter who farms their land. They said they were surprised to hear the lecturers say no-till methods, which seemed to use more chemicals in the short-term care of land, might be the best option.

Koenig said upon questioning by the Frohs the use of chemicals is heavier in the transition, but in less than a decade the naturally occurring materials in the soil would mean much less use of fertilizers.

“I can see where it’s more effective on the nitrogen, phosphates,” Jeff Froh said. “The soil is basically relying upon chemicals.”

While tilling can strip the soil of nutrients and make it less compact, meaning more water is absorbed into the field, no-till practices and cover crops like winter wheat ensure the land filters more contamination from the water before it makes its way into groundwater.

After the presentation, Marilyn Froh said she understands the difficult position growers are in dealing with low revenue in a tough market.

“Understandably so, farmers have to make a living,” Marilyn Froh said. “I think sometimes they can no longer farm with their conscience. They have to farm in a way that makes it financially sustainable for them.”

Follow Bridget on Twitter @cookebridget.

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