MENOMONIE — Agricultural practices in Wisconsin significantly contribute to the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus found in Wisconsin watersheds, said Wisconsin Farmers Union Watershed Coordinator Bill Hogseth at a clean water panel discussion at UW-Stout on Nov. 25.

The good news is that practices, such as reduced tillage and cover cropping, are known to be able to lessen that impact, Hogseth said. Unfortunately, less than 20% of Wisconsin farmers are using those practices, he added.

And that number is despite agencies working for decades to incentivize farmers to adopt changes, Hogseth noted.

Digging into why more farmers don’t adopt these practices goes beyond environmental factors, Hogseth said, noting that social, political and economic factors have to be considered as well.

With these factors in play, trying to solve water quality using technical devices doesn’t really hit the mark, he said.

“The missing ingredient usually is engaged citizen leadership,” Hogseth said, “because the people who are closest to the problem are often closest to the solution.

“In our case, that happens to be farmers.”

Therefore, they try to bring farmers together so that can collaborate, learn from each other and consider implementing new practices.

“It’s farmer-to-farmer learning. It’s farmer-to-farmer trust,” he said.

Farmer-led watershed councils can now use funding sources to determine what practices work best locally and incentivize neighboring farmers to take those steps.

Water quality conservation is best done, from a land-use perspective, Hogseth said, when it’s farmer-led.

“It’s not the (Natural Resources Conservation Service) agent. It’s not the county agent,” Hogseth said, adding that farmers influence each other.

Their ongoing work is to ensure that these conversations between farmers are happening and continue to happen.

The conversations around Wisconsin water quality do have to extend beyond the farming community as well, something further discussed by other members of the panel, which also included Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, lake association representatives, UW-Stout professors and Dunn County’s director of public health. The event was moderated by State Sen. Patty Schachtner.

Liz Usborne, president of Tainter Menomin Lake Improvement Association, said that water can act as a “unifier,” bringing farmers, corporations, lake associations, representatives from local municipalities and state agencies together.

Tina Lee, UW-Stout associate professor of anthropology, added that they’re “trying to figure out what is the best way to get at the root causes of what the pollution is and how to stop that and understanding that has to be a collective effort.”

Lt. Gov. Barnes, who chairs the state’s climate change task force, echoed Hogseth’s sentiment that those closest to the problem are the closest to the solution, adding that different parts of the state will be experiencing different water quality issues.

The different problems in different locations requires being careful not to use a “blanket approach” to solving problems of water quality, Barnes said. Solutions take incorporating a variety of viewpoints from different backgrounds, disciplines and sectors.

It’s “making sure all the voices are at the table that haven’t traditionally been at the table,” Barnes said.

Local water quality is an issue communities are aware of and express concern about.

Dunn County Department of Public Health Director KT Gallagher said that about half of respondents to Dunn County’s health assessment needs survey identified a healthy environment as a weakness, making it the second-highest community-identified priority in Dunn County.

“That’s significant,” Gallagher said, noting that a healthy environment topped other high-profile concerns in the survey.

Concerns about the environment and water quality aren’t unfounded.

“What you eat, what you drink impacts your health directly,” Gallagher said.

About 60% of the Dunn County community gets their drinking water from private wells, Gallagher said, and there is no systematic testing or requirements for testing in groundwater in personal wells.

“So oftentimes people don’t know their private risk of the water that’s coming out of their tap,” Gallagher said, adding that water contamination can’t necessarily be detected by how the water looks.

Besides the health concerns surrounding drinking contaminated water, there are other factors to consider as well, such as economic factors.

That includes looking at how much the housing market suffers when it’s situated next to polluted lakes and other water sources, Lee said, as well how water quality impacts tourism and local businesses.

Improving water quality and addressing the problems it brings isn’t a simple process.

Scott McGovern, Ph.D., UW-Stout biology professor recommended a combination of multiple techniques in working toward solving problems.

Water quality is a long-term problem that will take a long time to solve, Lee said.

“I think what we really know is that we need to get the root of this,” Lee said, adding that the focus should be on what they can control.