When the glaciers retreated from central Wisconsin over 10,000 years ago, they left behind a broad expanse of sand and gravel outwash plains to create the area that we now know as the Central Sands. In the intervening years, this mostly featureless area of lakebed and sand has evolved both naturally and with our help into a cornucopia of lakes, streams, wetlands, forests and irrigated agricultural fields.
In relatively recent times (the kind that can be measured in half centuries), the changes have been little short of spectacular. Specialty crop agriculture has expanded with improvements in irrigation and production technologies and become one of the premier vegetable production centers in the US. As our ability to grow high quality vegetables expanded, the food processing industry grew with it; the potato, green bean, sweet corn and pea canning and freezing plants in and surrounding the Sands have become the envy of the nation. Both the proximity of the Wisconsin River and the availability of groundwater— often only feet from the land surface—have allowed the paper industry to grow pines and prosper. The dairy industry, for which the state is famous, represents the next step as the Sands provides an ideal opportunity to integrate new cropping systems to bolster the potato and vegetable crops we already grow so successfully. The agricultural and industrial growth has brought prosperity, jobs (an estimated 35,000 from agriculture alone) and new opportunities for continued economic development that has enabled vibrant rural communities to emerge and grow—all this in an area that was economically depressed a scant 60 years ago.
Let’s not forget, however, that everything we now cherish in the Sands, from its lakes and streams that we fish and enjoy, to the prosperity and employment that its agriculture brings, is ultimately connected to and dependent on the groundwater aquifer that nature provided all those thousands of years ago and maintains to this day with generous rainfall. We must maintain a balance between the water that we all need and use and the water that nature returns to ensure that the Sands continue to evolve.
Evolution is a continuous process, and we are often unaware that change is actually happening. The climate also fluctuates through time and impacts that change. We currently benefit from a warming trend that has extended our growing season by two weeks and boosted crop yield. The downside is that it has also brought dry spells like the drought of 2011-12; we need to use more water than nature provides during these periods, which can limit the aquifer from recharging. Climate fluctuation also brought wet periods, as in the spring 2013, that flood basements and delay crops but also begins the process of restoring the aquifer’s balance. These natural processes have been fluctuating through the history of the Sands.
The pictures with this article show us that these fluctuations are not new. Pleasant Lake in the southeastern corner of Waushara County has been identified in recent citizen forums as an area of the highest priority because irrigated agriculture has grown, and new dairy expansion has been proposed. The lake water is down and solutions such as limiting irrigation are being actively discussed. But the photos of Pleasant Lake in 1958 compared to the same spot in 2013 show that lake levels have also been lower in the past. This does not mean that we should be any less concerned about the lake levels today, but perhaps we should broaden our thinking. The seemingly obvious link between irrigation and lake levels may be more complicated than it seems—there was essentially no irrigation in 1958 to account for the low lake levels at that time.
We are dealing with a complex ecosystem in the Central Sands; it is naturally fluctuating and evolving through time. We all have an impact on the balance between the water we use and the rate at which it can be recharged. There will be no silver bullet solution, but perhaps we all have roles to play:
- We all need a better understanding of the system and how it functions before we can design long-term solutions that will work. We are doing this by jointly supporting university research.
- The farmers need to do all they can to use water more effectively. They are doing this by irrigating more efficiently and changing the crop landscape to one that needs less water.
- The food processors need to return the water they use to the aquifer. They are doing this by irrigating wash water onto pastures for filtered recharge.
- Rural communities need to design systems that do not remove water from the system. They are doing this by creating new recharge areas, retention ponds and drainage designs to divert water back to the aquifer to feed the lakes and streams.
Finally all the citizens of the Sands, whether they live on lakes or in towns, need to be aware that the water they use to live and to recreate comes from the same source. Everything they do that is connected to water can collectively have an impact. Only by working together can we be sure that the balance of water use and water recharge is maintained as the Sands evolves into the future.