Cleaning up our watershed: One best management practice at a time

Participants at the 2015 NRCS Soil Health Field Day learn how conservation practices can increase soil health by improving various physical and chemical characteristics within the soil, including increased organic matter, healthier microbial communities, improved infiltration and reduced soil erosion.            submitted photo 

by Alison Thiel

When just one pound of phosphorus can fuel the growth of 500 pounds of algae in our lakes, every pound counts.

With that in mind, members of the Lake Management Planning (LMP) team have been doubling down on developing initiatives that prioritize phosphorus reductions throughout Green Lake watershed’s shorelines, cities and agricultural areas.

A series of agriculturally focused projects has been gaining particular momentum.

Building off the identification of nutrient-loading priority areas throughout the 107 square miles that drain to Green Lake, the team is working in Green Lake and Fond du Lac counties to implement many projects that aim to improve both land conditions upstream and water quality conditions downstream.

In Green Lake County alone, more than 100 agricultural best-management practices (BMPs) will have been installed in the watershed by 2016, due in part to five consecutive years of grant funding from the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s (NRCS) National Water Quality Initiative (NWQI).

That effort partners Land Conservation Department staff with farmers to install “hard” conservation practices, such as grassed waterways and retention ponds, and to implement “soft” management techniques — including cover crops and tillage practices.

These practices keep nutrients and sediment where they fall, upstream and out of the lake.

Producers who participate in the program work closely with the county to pinpoint BMPs that best suit their operation.

What makes this program even more unique is that some of the practices, including grade stabilization structures and sediment basins, are installed at no cost to producers.

NWQI funds typically cover 70 percent of the cost for each of these BMPs. The Green Lake County model goes above and beyond, as the remaining 30 percent is covered by the Green Lake Sanitary District (GLSD).

In exchange for free BMPs, the practice is left intact in perpetuity and is maintained by the GLSD.

Paul Gunderson, Green Lake County conservationist and member of the LMP team, explained the effectiveness of certain BMPs.

“With some practices and structures, we are able to collect 70 to 90 percent of what comes off of the field,” he said. “And as an added bonus, the sediment collected in each structure is then given back to the producer as premium top soil.”

In Fond du Lac County, which forms 41 percent of the drainage area, the GLSD is working with the County Land and Water Conservation Department and producers to install appropriate BMPs to divert nutrients from eventually entering Green Lake.

This program is an expense-free opportunity for landowners, made possible by a $200,000 Department of Natural Resources Lake Protection Grant and the GLSD.

Charlie Marks, administrator of the GLSD and member of the LMP team, expressed enthusiasm for how these practices directly influence lake health.

“We have individuals signed up for various BMPs, ranging from sediment basins to stream buffers,” he said. “Already in the last year, we have been able to divert 1,000 plus pounds of phosphorus from entering Green Lake.”

Marks described the collaboration between Fond du Lac County, the GLSD and producers that continues to make the program a success.

As for the future of the program, Marks hopes to continue building relationships and credibility with the agricultural community, working with those who know the land best.

Those interested in learning more about best practices for agricultural systems may attend the NRCS-sponsored 2016 Soil Health Field Day Wednesday, Aug. 10.

Hosted at the Geherke family farm in Omro, participants will be able to view a cross section of soil from a soil pit, witness the benefits of cover crops and learn about soil health from a series of hands-on demonstrations.

For more information about this educational opportunity, visit the Green Lake Association’s event calendar at

Alison Thiel is the project manager for the Green Lake Association (GLA), a local not-for-profit organization that works to improve water quality for Green Lake. The GLA is a guest columnist on behalf of the Lake Management Planning team.