MENOMONIE — With melting snow already covering some Dunn and Eau Claire county roads, flooding is now a concern in western Wisconsin — and talk about flooding took high priority at the eighth annual Red Cedar Watershed Conference in Menomonie Thursday.
About 300 people attended the conference, hosted by the Tainter Menomin Lake Improvement Association at the UW-Stout Student Memorial Center.
During a session on flooding and conservation techniques, students, faculty, farmers, landowners, government officials and water experts reacted audibly to photos of flooding damage from 2018.
Peter Wurzer, a state conservation engineer based in Altoona, said western Wisconsin has seen “significant flooding” in the last three years, and used Buffalo County as an example.
“(In 2016) we had an overnight storm where we had 8 to 11 inches overnight,” Wurzer said.
The rain caused landslides and flash flooding. Buffalo County’s landscape of steep, narrow valleys encourages water to drain quickly, which wreaks havoc with farmland and homes, Wurzer said.
Similar flooding situations happened in 2017 and 2018 across the state. But beyond flooding homes and displacing families, those disasters had impacts on conservation.
Water eroded Wisconsin’s cropland, sending more polluted agricultural runoff into lakes and streams, Wurzer said. Sediment was swept up and deposited on fields.
The state is working to address the problems, Wurzer said. Federal, county and state officials are collaborating with communities to restore stream banks. In Dunn County in 2018, a rehabilitation project at Sand Creek made the water healthier for trout, said the Wisconsin Clear Waters chapter of the nonprofit Trout Unlimited.
The state is also designing higher embankments to prevent more flooding, Wurzer said.
Another state program is encouraging landowners to set aside land for conservation to help stem flood damage.
The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program sends landowners payments if they agree to stop farming land next to streams and wetlands, and instead let the state use the land for conservation practices, said Brian Loeffelholz, a state conservation specialist who manages CREP.
The program is aimed at protecting water quality and creating native species habitat.
Unlike the broader Conservation Reservation Program, which targets general farmland, Wisconsin landowners can enroll their land in CREP any time during the year, Loeffelholz said. Contracts are for 15 years or for “perpetual easement,” or forever.
CREP will continue under the 2018 Farm Bill. Landowners must be within a project area — a western area includes Dunn, Eau Claire, Chippewa, St. Croix, Pierce, Pepin, Buffalo and Barron counties.
By planting trees, restoring wetlands or installing filter strips next to water bodies, CREP can help prevent flooding of cropland, Loeffelholz said.
“During the flooding, the trees remain there, in good standing, helping stop the nutrients running down slopes from above,” Loeffelholz said.
Participating landowners receive annual payments from the Farm Service Agency, typically between $40 and $240 per acre depending on soil type, county and type of agriculture use.
Wisconsin had 7,767 acres enrolled in CREP in 2018. The state is fifth in the U.S. in total CREP contracts.
“It allows us to put what’s needed into conservation and keep the rest of it in agricultural production,” Loeffelholz said.
The conference also hosted sessions on farm soil conservation, Wisconsin algal blooms and on the last five years of UW-Stout’s LAKES Research Experience for Undergraduates program at the Red Cedar watershed.
Conference co-chairman Dick Lamers said the conference brings landowners and water experts together and is important for the community as a whole.
“I tell people it takes the 95,000 people who live in the watershed to value clean water,” Lamers said.
The ninth Red Cedar Watershed Conference is set for March 12, 2020.