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Rice Creek Watershed Research to be used as pilot for maintaining healthy lakes

Quita Sheehan points out the lots they where they'll be surveying shorelines for potential erosion and storm runoff concerns.
Katie Thoresen
Quita Sheehan points out the lots they where they'll be surveying shorelines for potential erosion and storm water runoff concerns.

Along the northeastern shores of Big Lake in Vilas County, a group of three women walk the shoreline.

One is right where the water meets the land, the other two are spaced equidistance apart up to 100 feet inland.

They’re looking for and documenting signs of potential stormwater runoff into the lake.

Stormwater runoff can be detrimental to a lake. The more nutrients that enter water body, the more you’re going to see plant growth, both native and invasive, and could lead to algae blooms.

“One of the things we do know is that as conditions have changed over the last few decades, we’re seeing these rain events, storm events that are much more concentrated,” said Quita Sheehan, conservation specialist at the Vilas County Land and Water Conservation Department. “We have a lot more rain falling on the landscaped in a much shorter period of time. If you have any opportunity for soil erosion, that’s when you’re going to have the biggest flush of nutrients into your lake.”

Sheehan says since there’s nothing we can do about storm intensity, it’s up to humans to take steps to prevent the storm runoff into the lake.

That means having healthy shoreline buffers.

Fortunately, it’s something Sheehan and the two volunteers with her, Jeanne Bergstrom and Holly Schmaling, saw a lot of as they search Big Lake and other lakes within the Rice Creek Watershed in the Boulder Junction area. They notice relatively few signs of erosion as they surveyed shorelines.

Schmaling and Bergstrom measure an area of concern for stormwater runoff and Sheehan records the data.
Katie Thoresen
Schmaling and Bergstrom measure an area of concern for stormwater runoff and Sheehan records the data.

Something that came as a surprise to Bergstrom and Schmaling.

“I was expecting more, which is a nice surprise that we didn’t find more point sources of runoff,” said Bergstrom.

It was perhaps not so surprising to Sheehan. The Rice Creek Watershed is one of the healthiest in Vilas County. It’s why it was chosen for this study.

“It came out as one of the top five in the county that had the least amount of concerns. It was in the best shape,” she said. “It went into our protection mode.”

With the lakes being so healthy, you may be asking why bother doing research there? What’s the point?

It’s often the case that researchers will go in after something has gone wrong with the ultimate goal of fixing the problem or at least preventing it from happening elsewhere.

But Sheehan says this is taking a pro-active approach.

“The idea is ‘Hey. It’s cheaper to protect than restore.’ So how do we go about looking at protecting rather than coming in after a big problem saying, ‘how do we fix this?’” said Sheehan.

This study will have two main goals.

One is education.

Sheehan records location data for a source of erosion.
Katie Thoresen
Sheehan records location data for a source of erosion.

Forty-five landowners gave permission for Sheehan and a team of volunteers to survey their lakeshores in the Rice Creek Watershed.

Those landowners and lake associations will get the results as well as some education materials on shoreline protection.

“Provide them the opportunity to take advantage of our cost-share and healthy lakes programs if they’re interested or some of our technical expertise,” said Sheehan.

The other goal goes beyond the Rice Creek Watershed and even Vilas County.

While water quality in many lakes in Southern Wisconsin has dropped over the years, lakes in Northern Wisconsin are still widely healthy.

It’s one of the biggest draws to the Northwoods for people like Bergstrom and Schmaling. The volunteers are neighbors with homes in Vilas County.

“We drive five hours to get up here to clean lakes. We looked at buying property down south. I just could not go in the water down there,” said Schmaling. “I really want the water up here to stay beautiful, pristine healthy.”

If this pilot study works out, it can be used as a roadmap for other lakes and watersheds on how to maintain their health.

“People love their lakes. That’s why they come here. To keep the lakes healthy, we need to make sure the shorelines are healthy. We know that shorelines, especially in a county like ours where we have almost no agriculture, shoreline development is one of the biggest negative effects on water quality in the lakes and lake health,” said Sheehan.

As part of the pilot program Vilas County Land and Water Conservation will be looking at other watersheds over the next decade to work on protecting water quality.

“Vilas County is really lucky. We have almost all of our wetlands still intact. Most of our waterways are relatively in healthy conditions,” said Sheehan. “We want to keep it that way or make it even better.”

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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