SPRINGFIELD — On a brilliant, sunny but frigid Wisconsin day, Jeff Endres, a fifth-generation farmer, uses a rake to scratch through a foot-and-a-half of snow on his farm just west of Waunakee.
For the first time since his family has owned the land, it’s not bare, frozen ground beneath the snow. It’s barley.
"Farmland is the most vulnerable when frost is coming out of the ground," says Endres, who, along with brothers Steve and Randy, owns Endres Berryridge Farms in the town of Springfield. "It's good to have roots in place when the snow melts and the rain starts to come. There isn't as great a chance of soil and nutrient runoff."
Endres had an audience when he planted the barley as a cover crop for the first time ever on his family's fifth-generation farm this past fall. Yahara Pride Farms, a nonprofit in its infancy chaired by Endres, was hosting its first Fall Fields Demonstration Days.
The two-day event drew 230 farmers, government workers and other agricultural stakeholders with the goal of promoting and expanding new techniques and technologies to reduce phosphorus levels in the region's waterways.
Nutrient runoff and livestock manure contain phosphorus that travels through the Yahara Watershed — an area starting with the Yahara River near De Forest, running through Cherokee Marsh, including Lakes Mendota, Monona, Kegonsa and Waubesa, and ending at the Rock River. phosphorus contributes to unnatural weed growth and algae blooms.
For that reason, agriculture plays a large role in the declining quality of Madison's lakes.
The growth of Yahara Pride, under the umbrella of the Clean Lakes Alliance, since its founding in 2011 is a sign that a major shift is occurring in how the greater Madison area is working to reduce phosphorus levels in the Rock River Basin, which includes the Yahara Watershed.
Historically, only point source polluters – wastewater treatment plants, municipal storm water facilities – were on the hook to meet phosphorus-reducing standards. But due to new regulations and a first-of-its kind approach Wisconsin is taking to address them, area farmers are on the hook more than ever to contribute to reduction efforts.
Getting buy-in could be tough from an industry historically averse to government regulations and leery of sharing business-related information, such as a farm's phosphorus levels, with government agencies. And while agriculture is being lumped into regional efforts to clean up the lakes, participation is voluntary, causing some to question if they're being asked to do enough.
"The dance that has to be done here is how do you engage farmers on essentially a voluntary basis and document that they are doing the changes necessary to reduce phosphorus?" says Jim VandenBrook, executive director of the Wisconsin Land and Conservation Association. "If we can work with the farmers and agricultural groups to deal with this legitimate concern, we can get the practices installed and then make sure they are maintained. If that happens, we can clean up the watershed."
If Yahara Pride and its supporters are successful, farmers could avoid new clean-water regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency and simultaneously assist in a regional goal, orchestrated by Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District, to cut the amount of pollutants in the entire Yahara Watershed. The effort could also help meet a goal laid out by the Clean Lakes Alliance to reduce phosphorus in the four Madison lakes by 50 percent before 2025.
"Madison is its own unique beast," says Sara Walling, section chief for nutrient management and water quality for the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. "It is a very progressive community surrounded largely by agriculture. This proximity is forcing everybody in a relatively small geographic area to work together and reduce the finger pointing. What is being tried in the watershed is a great opportunity for farmers."
This new approach to nutrient pollution management, targeting phosphorus in particular, began in earnest in 2009 when nine environmental groups filed a notice of intent to sue the Environmental Protection Agency on the grounds the federal agency was not forcing Wisconsin to implement its numeric nutrient criterion fast enough. The numeric nutrient criterion is a concentration of phosphorus that, if exceeded, could potentially impact fish, plants and fungi.
Wisconsin had been warned by the EPA ten years earlier that it needed to create the number-based system for tracking nutrient pollution in order to comply with the Clean Water Act, enforced by the EPA.
Under the threat of legal action, Wisconsin and the EPA went to work.
At the end of 2010, Wisconsin passed the "phosphorus rulemaking package." Among other things, it established a criterion for phosphorus. When Gov. Scott Walker took office in 2011, he tried to roll back the standards, but the Legislature kept them in place.
Under the standards, a body of water is listed as "impaired" if the state Department of Natural Resources has data demonstrating that the numeric water quality criterion has been exceeded.
The next step is to develop what is referred to as a "total maximum daily load," (TMDL) or the maximum amount of a pollutant a body of water can receive and still safely meet water quality standards. To be removed from the impaired list, a water body's TMDL has to drop back to safe levels, meaning the amount of pollutants has been reduced.
While it took until December for the state DNR to add Madison's four lakes to the "impaired waters" list, a TMDL had been developed in 2011 to address impairments throughout the entire Rock River Basin, which includes the Yahara Watershed.
"Yahara Pride Farms was originally created because of the TMDL put in place for the Rock River Basin," Endres says. "We felt it was pretty important for agriculture to be at the table."
From a scientific perspective, it makes sense for agriculture to be involved in phosphorus reduction efforts.
"What we have found in most watersheds in Wisconsin is that 30 percent of the fields are responsible for contributing 70 percent of the phosphorus," says Jim Baumann, a wastewater engineer for the state Department of Natural Resources. "Obviously you want to target your efforts to those 30 percent."
To assist in the effort and help secure funding for farm conservation efforts, Yahara Pride joined a regional effort led by the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District, now known as the Yahara Watershed Improvement Network, or Yahara WINs. The purpose of the organization is to decrease phosphorus in the Yahara Watershed through a new practice called adaptive management.
Adaptive management works on the premise that those responsible for pollution need to work collectively in order to reduce pollutants in a region's lakes, rivers and streams. Two years remain in a four-year pilot program called the Watershed Adaptive Management, overseen by the sewerage district.
Dave Taylor, director of special projects for the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District and a Yahara Pride board member, says phosphorus sources can be broken down into three main buckets; sewage districts, municipal storm water and agriculture.
At this point, the biggest "bang for the buck" in terms of phosphorus reduction, is focusing on agriculture, Taylor says.
He says more storm water retention ponds could be built, for example, to reduce phosphorous runoff. But that would be more expensive and yield fewer results than if new conservation techniques and technologies are brought to the agricultural community.
"Wisconsin is the first state in the United States to try this," Taylor says. "There is a tremendous amount of interest from the DNR and the EPA in whether this can work, which is why we are trying it first with the pilot project."
Endres is a strong believer in farmland conservation.
He's also convinced that the motivation to implement conservation practices – whether through the use of cover crops like barley or other practices like vertical and strip tillage or vertical manure injection or creating a nutrient management plan to reduce phosphorus – has to come from within the farming community.
Demands to access to a farmer's soil test results or phosphorus index number are not well received.
"When you work with farmers and go to their farm, it's like going to someone's home," he says. "There is concern over how they will be dealt with and if it's going to lead to their farm being put in the spotlight as the farm with all the problems."
Baumann, who helped develop the state's phosphorus water quality standards, agrees.
"I think there is a fear among farmers that if this information is given to us … it will somehow be used against them," Baumann says. "For the average person who thinks we have all this information, we don't. It just doesn't exist."
Baumann says state officials often start from scratch to address possible sources of phosphorous runoff by studying the topography of the land, then asking farmers what crops they are growing and how frequently they rotate those crops.
"We are starting (phosphorus reduction efforts) with very limited data," he says. "At times it feels like we are working with one hand tied behind our back."
Endres says one of the goals of Yahara Pride is to work with farmers "to their comfort level."
The group has a conservationist under contract who is working with farmers to evaluate their land and nutrient management plan – if they have one. They are rated on a simple scale of green, yellow and red. And just like a stop light, green means continue the practice, yellow means phase it out and red means stop the practice immediately.
"When the certification process is done that information becomes the farmers," Endres says. "It is not a public record of any government agency. That information belongs to the farmer."
Last summer six farms went through this process to obtain Yahara Pride's certificate of sustainability. Endres says more will be done in the spring.
Kevin Connors, director of Dane County's land and water resources department, says the county has a strong relationship with farmers and doesn't need access to the information in order to know if conservation efforts are working.
He points out that the west branch of the Sugar River in Dane County was the first body of water in the state to be removed from the EPA's impaired waters list in 2004, largely due to the efforts of former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk working closely with farmers. Those efforts continue under current County Executive Joe Parisi. The German Valley Creek was also cleaned up and removed from the impaired waters list in 2012.
"There is a lot of pride in the agriculture and non-agriculture communities that huge strides have been made," Connors says. "I think it's safe to say that with the high-precipitation events we have been experiencing it could be a lot worse. But more can always be done. We can't become complacent."
Most agree, climate change, in addition to new phosphorus guidelines, is driving the need for conservation efforts from farmers.
The annual average precipitation in Madison, for example, has gone up roughly 12 percent since 1940. The area is not only getting more rain but is experiencing more significant rain events, according to Stephen Vavrus, a senior scientist with the Nelson Institute's Center for Climate Research.
For example, the number of 1-inch daily precipitation events have nearly doubled from the 1940s through the past decade, and the 2-inch precipitation events jumped from less than five in the 1940's to more than 20 from 2000 to 2010.
In 1940, there were no 3-inch rain events. That number spiked to more than eight from 2000 to 2010.
On average, a 1-inch rain event will result in three-tenths of a pound of phosphorus lost per acre, Endres says, resulting in a 1,000-acre farm losing 300 pounds of phosphorus. And for every pound of phosphorous runoff that enters the waterways, up to 500 pounds of blue-green algae is formed.
"Normally, that rain would sink in. But when it comes in that much of an abundance and that quickly, there is no time for it to settle into the soil," says Don Heilman, president of the Clean Lakes Alliance and a board member of Yahara Pride Farms. "It runs off the land, taking phosphorus with it."
It's time for different things to be done to the land to mitigate the issues associated with climate change, he says.
Yahara Pride, which now includes 84 members, is bringing new conservation techniques to farmers through the watershed.
With roughly $70,000 in funding in 2013 from Yahara WINs and private donors, Yahara Pride was able to assist farmers in trying new conservation techniques that prevented 2,955 pounds of from entering the watershed, according to the Clean Lakes Alliance.
That number is based on calculation that for every acre treated with a conservation technique, a pound of phosphorus remains on the land or in the soil.
Of the 2,955 acres treated with a conservation technique, 2,375 acres were planted with cover crops in the fall, roughly 280 acres were vertically tilled or strip tilled, and 300 acres were treated using vertical manure injection, a newer technique that shoots manure roughly a foot under the ground instead of spreading it on top of the soil.
Endres says meeting the new total load reduction limits for the Rock River Basin and consequently helping the Clean Lakes Alliance meet its goal to reduce pollution in Madison lakes by 50 percent will be tough, but remains optimistic.
"We've got the best of both worlds here. We have the lakes in Madison and plenty of fertile land surrounding the capitol city," he says. "I think Yahara Pride will prove agriculture can strive here and the waterways can strive here as well. I think it can be a win-win for both." ￼
Editor’s note: This story has been amended to correctly spell “phosphorus” when used as a noun. As an adjective, as in “phosphorous runoff,” the word ends in “ous”.