Knowing Your Roots

Posts tagged ‘groundwater’

Plants, Water, and Landscapes

Blog 17When it is warm and dry, you have probably noticed that plants require a lot of water to stay healthy, but did you know that only 10% of the water a plant receives actually remains inside of it to support life processes? Plants lose the other 90% of their required water (liquid) as water vapor (gas) to the atmosphere through a process known as evapotranspiration (ET), which is a combination of water the plants emit from pores in their leaves (transpiration) and water that evaporates from soil and plant surfaces.  ET uses a tremendous amount of solar energy, and this energy use coupled to the plant water use is referred to as the water-energy cycle of a landscape. When humans alter the composition of plants across a landscape (i.e. urbanization, agriculture), they also alter the water-energy cycle.  (more…)

Behind the Scenes: Working together to protect our water—The Little Plover River

Blog 29Harvesting the bounty of the Central Sands is already underway –peas and snap beans are on the way to consumer’s plates and sweet corn, potatoes and carrots are just around the corner.  As we watch and enjoy this remarkable productivity unfold, it is a good time to reflect on what makes it all possible. The Central Sands themselves and the underlying aquifer of groundwater laid down by glaciers 25,000 years ago and constantly recharged by rainfall, snowmelt / runoff are the corner stones in the foundation. Maintaining the delicate balance between the water resource and the needs of everyone who uses and depends on it is an ongoing challenge that we all must be a part of so future generations will enjoy the benefits of this unique area.
One particular area of focus is the Little Plover River watershed in northern Portage County. The Little Plover is a trout stream and an important drainage outlet that meanders its way westward from its headwaters east of the ancient Johnstown glacial moraine through wetlands, woods, farmland, and the homes, parks, businesses, and industries of the bustling Village of Plover to its confluence at the Wisconsin River south of Stevens Point. In recent years, the Little Plover has experienced highs and lows, which have ranged from flooding and ruined basements in some years to reduced flows in others. Although the little stream has persevered through it all and remains a great place to fish and enjoy the outdoors, everyone who lives in the watershed is concerned about its future and is working to secure it.   (more…)

Stepping Up to the Plate: Wisconsin Farmers Provide the Resources to Tackle Water Issues in Central Wisconsin

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Few now question that our planet’s resources are being challenged by our relentless population growth, and yet most of us are unable to do anything meaningful to address these far reaching issues. Water is among the most precious of these resources, and farmers in all parts of the world are struggling to find ways to use water more wisely while preserving its availability for future generations. Nowhere is this more evident than in Wisconsin’s Central Sands—one of the most productive potato and vegetable growing areas in the US, which depends on irrigation to produce the food that is needed to provide food security for the nation. The water needed for irrigation is drawn from an extensive aquifer (underlying several counties) that was formed in glacial times and has been replenished annually by rainfall and snow melt for over a half century. Evidence in recent years, however, suggests that water levels in parts of the aquifer may be declining and that this is adversely impacting some of the surface water lakes and streams connected to the groundwater. The reasons for this are complex and may be related to a combination of factors including shifting rainfall patterns, extending growing seasons, the need to irrigate more to meet increasing crop demand, and expanding rural communities and industries.

The potato and vegetable growers in the Central Sands are not content to debate causes, and they have united to proactively seek solutions. In 2011, the growers joined forces with the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service and researchers from several University of Wisconsin departments to launch a major new Conservation Innovation Grant to examine ways to use water more efficiently. This 3-year landmark study “Preserving water resources in Central Wisconsin” was awarded $700,000 in competitive federal funding AND the award required matching funds from farmers to become a reality. This is where the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association and the Midwest Food Processors Association stepped to the plate and hit a bases loaded home run by pledging a whopping $634,000 to secure the funds. This is money raised annually from grower-members and demonstrates the commitment these growers have to the future. The grant is now entering its 3rd year and is already justifying every penny of investment.   (more…)

Fresh and Local – A lifetime of learning: Wisconsin potato growers refine their craft

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It’s cold out there on the farm! The snow falls, the wind whistles, and there is just not much you can do to get a jump on the coming season—well, not quite. If you are a Wisconsin potato grower, now is the perfect time to refine your skills and learn something new. Wisconsin already enjoys a well-deserved reputation as national leaders in sustainable potato production. In this new era where consumers are increasingly basing their purchasing choices on how sustainably their food is grown, Wisconsin is already ahead of the pack in adopting the practices that are now in demand. They introduced the nation’s first vegetable eco-label with Healthy Grown™ fresh potatoes over a decade ago and are now reaping the benefits of this foresight. A Wisconsin potato grown using practices that sustain the environment, local economies, and the wellbeing of rural communities, can now stack up against the best potatoes you can produce anywhere, and it’s grown right here in your backyard—no extra food miles needed to travel to get here!

Building that kind of advantage does not come without a huge investment! The Wisconsin potato industry invests over $400,000 every year (no small potatoes!) with research partners from the University of Wisconsin to develop the tools that keep Wisconsin on the cutting edge along with the basic science that underpins those tools. The UW potato research and extension team is unrivaled anywhere in using grower support to generate tens of millions of dollars in additional competitive grant funds to advance the industry.

Funding the research and developing the tools that growers can use are only the first steps.  Working together to implement them is the key to success!  This comes through an intensive and continuing educational process involving on-farm field days, local county meetings and culminates in an annual state-wide Grower Education Conference.  Held during the coldest part of the winter in February, this is the “crown jewel” of the Potato Industry’s education program.  Over 350 growers from Wisconsin and around the nation gather together for three days in Stevens Point, WI.

With temperatures hovering around the zero degree mark this year, pickup trucks jammed the parking areas and surrounding streets of the conference center. The lineup of speakers—from Wisconsin, Idaho, Maine, Nebraska, Iowa, Washington DC and even Cambridge, England—were on hand to share expertise. An amazing array of forty-two speakers from the University of Wisconsin, representing 11 different academic departments, shared research and recommendations covering all aspects of potato production. Theme areas in 2014 included issues impacting groundwater, pest and nutrient management, breeding, variety development, food safety, storage and overall sustainability. The depth and breadth of this research is remarkable!

One key theme throughout the conference was preserving our groundwater resources for future generations. Presentations covered both the basic science underlying water use by crops and natural vegetation along with how this information can be used to model the interactions between the groundwater aquifer and surface lakes and streams. In-depth discussions of potential and ongoing projects that examine the impact of different crop landscapes on water use, as well as new technologies to deliver water precisely and only where and when it is needed were all part of the intense education the Wisconsin growers experienced.

Everyone left tired but brimming with fresh ideas and a renewed enthusiasm to implement the technologies and practices that will keep Wisconsin at the forefront of sustainable production. So, when the next snowstorm races across the state and those farms appear frozen and inactive, remember that the growers aren’t on winter break!

Thoughts for Food: Balancing the water, how we can all contribute

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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.

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