Wetlands and invasives

Panorama of the Waubesa Wetlands

Behold The Things We Cannot See

About the author: My name is Karin Swanson and I am a student of the Yahara Watershed Academy. I work for Clean Lakes Alliance as the Marketing and Communications Associate Manager and I am a Meteorologist. I am sharing my journey through the Academy in an effort to expand our community’s knowledge and passion for the Yahara River Watershed.

The forgotten and sometimes unknown pieces of our watershed

“Behold the things we cannot see.” Take a moment to think about that sentence. What does it mean? We are so plugged in these days, but there is an abundance of information we can absorb that isn’t on Google or in a text book. There are actions occurring all around us. We may not know those things are happening, but we must trust and behold those occurrences – even if we cannot see the processes happening.

Yahara Watershed Academy – the 4th class

Okay, let’s back up a bit. On May 14th, the Yahara Watershed Academy met for its fourth class. The Academy gathers one time each month for five months, and involves a partnership with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and Edgewood College. I am a student in the Academy, and we’ll graduate in June with the knowledge and skills to become a network of informed leaders for our watershed.

Lussier Family Heritage Center
Lussier Family Heritage Center

The May Yahara Watershed Academy class took place at the Lussier Family Heritage Center. The center is located on the south side of Madison at Lake Farm County Park and the Capital Springs Recreation Area. One of our education focus areas for May was wetlands. Do you know what a wetland is? Prior to class, I thought I knew about wetlands, but it turns out, my knowledge was only the tip of the iceberg.

YWA May 2019 Lussier Heritage Center
Yahara Watershed Academy at the Lussier Family Heritage Center

Wisconsin Wetlands Association

The first speaker of the day was Katie Beilfuss of the Wisconsin Wetlands Association. She spoke about wetlands and their effect on the water quality and water quantity of the Yahara Watershed.

Wetlands are found in areas where land and water intersect. They are located between waterways, such as lakes and rivers, and dry locations, such as uplands. We learned there are many types of wetlands. There are marshes and deepwater wetlands, sedge meadows and low prairies, forested wetlands, shrub thickets, bogs, fens, and more.

Wetlands, a forgotten resource

Wetlands are often the forgotten resource of the water world. However, they have many important qualities and roles in our landscape. Here are just a few ways wetlands are impactful:

  • Protect our communities from flooding
  • Absorb stormwater energy by taking on extra runoff
  • Reduce erosion and capture sediment
  • Protect water quality by allowing water to infiltrate the ground
  • Act as a habitat for fish and other wildlife
  • Store carbon
  • Act as a great location for recreation

Learn more about how wetlands manage water.

Disappearing wetlands

Wisconsin is home to many types of wetland habitats. However, those wetlands are disappearing. The state has lost nearly half of its wetlands since the late 1800s. The wetland loss is not evenly spread throughout the state, with most wetlands lost located in southern Wisconsin.

Wisconsin Wetland Loss Map
Wetland loss is not evenly spread across Wisconsin. The loss is most concentrated in southern Wisconsin.

Evolving wetlands

Maps of wetlands in the past, compared to current maps show the evolution of Wisconsin’s wetlands. The shapes and locations of the spaces have changed over time. In some locations, wetlands are now only positioned at right angles as buildings and roads converge on them. As we lose wetlands, rivers and lakes must begin accepting more water from storms, causing flooding and poor water quality.

Wetlands in Middleton, WI
The red borders show current wetlands in Middleton, Wisconsin. Notice how some of the red lines are at right angles, showing where roads and buildings have encroached on wetlands.

“We need to view wetlands as solutions to the community,” said Beilfuss. She went on to explain that we need to look at history and learn how our landscape looked and worked before people altered it. Once we do that, we can make better decisions for the health and safety of our community.

How can people get involved?

  • Visit www.wisconsinwetlands.org
  • There are many useful videos to better explain wetlands and their importance
  • Volunteer and give support to wetland groups in your community
  • Visit your local wetlands and appreciate them for their beauty and the positive impact they have on the watershed

Climate change and Dane County

Keith Reopelle is the Director of the Dane County Office of Energy and Climate Change. The office was established in 2017 as a way to address climate change and its impacts in Dane County. Reopelle is helping lead the creation of the new Dane County Climate Action Plan.

The Dane County Climate Action Plan’s goal is to put Dane County on a path to decarbonization. The Plan includes five guiding principles:

  1. Equity and justice
  2. Economic
  3. Health benefits
  4. Maximizing resiliency
  5. Bridging urban and rural divide

Dane County actions

Reopelle spoke about the actions Dane County is already taking to address climate change. The county runs 80 vehicles with compressed methane gas as a fuel source. Compressed methane gas generated at the Dane County Landfill will provide a 90% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions on those vehicles, according to Reopelle.

Dane County Climate Action Plan
Summary of the Dane County Climate Action Plan

Regenerative agriculture

The county is working on regenerative agriculture systems, which will build up soil rather than allowing it to deplete. Research is ongoing about silvopasture, which integrates grazing livestock with areas of trees or forests. The county is also researching tree intercropping, in which trees are deliberately grown between various crops. Another type of regenerative agriculture which may prove useful to the county is alley cropping. With alley cropping, trees are planted in rows between companion crops. One example would be fruit trees planted in rows between areas of corn.

Solar power

Dane County is working to increase its solar power use. The county’s goal is to meet one-third of its electric demand with solar power. Already, several solar arrays are in use, and another is being developed at the Dane County Airport. Dane County is also working on groundwater research – both with modeling and the use of new technologies.

Finding a climate change solution

To conclude his presentation, Reopelle gave suggestions about ways to be involved with the climate change solution.

  • Talk about climate change – more people than ever believe it is happening. It’s time to normalize the conversation because there are solutions to the problem.
  • Pursue renewables as often as you can.
  • Become more aware and educate yourself about the problem of climate change.

The entire Dane County Action Plan will be released this summer. Clean Lakes Alliance will include a link to the plan when it becomes available.

The Waubesa Wetlands

Cal DeWitt - YWA May 2019
Dr. Calvin (Cal) DeWitt in the Waubesa Wetlands. May 2019.

Dr. Calvin (Cal) DeWitt is an environmental scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, serving as Professor Emeritus in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. DeWitt moved into a home southwest of Lake Waubesa in the early 1970s, specifically choosing a home located in a wetland. DeWitt and his wife immediately loved their wetland home. They enjoyed the views, the wildlife, and the importance of the land to the surrounding ecosystem.

DeWitt worried about the future of the wetland area and decided to take action. He ran for Town Chair in the Town of Dunn, and won. DeWitt also helped establish the Waubesa Wetlands as a nature preserve. He said the Waubesa Wetlands provides a case study for joining science and public policy. Read the entire publication, Community Mobilization: A Case Study of the Town of Dunn. DeWitt considers this publication to be one of his proudest achievements.

Hidden treasures

Cal DeWitt is a masterful storyteller. His love of the Waubesa Wetlands became infectious as he told stories of the land. He talked about the interesting features and the history of the wetlands and how the area formed. He showed the Academy a photo which displayed a purple glow in Deep Spring Creek. DeWitt described the purple sulphur bacteria that inhabit this part of the wetlands. The bacteria preexist the time when the Earth had oxygen in its atmosphere.

Deep Spring Creek - Waubesa Wetlands
Deep Spring Creek in the Waubesa Wetlands shows a glowing purple hue in one spot. This is due to the purple sulphur bacteria that inhabit that part of the wetlands.

Near Deep Spring Creek is a location where the peat is 95 feet deep. DeWitt described peat as a, “one-directional sponge.” He, along with students, was able to measure the depth by using metal rods, inserted into the peat. He stuck rod after rod down into the peat until he finally reached the bottom. 95 feet is the largest peat depth that has been found in the Waubesa Wetlands.

Wetlands once prevalent

Much of the land surrounding Madison’s lakes was once wetland. Homes have been built and lands have been filled in, eliminating many of our local wetlands. DeWitt talked about Spring Street in Madison. The street is prone to very wet conditions when it rains, likely due to being built on peat and filled wetlands.

Cal DeWitt’s research led him to modeling the development of the wetlands. DeWitt showed slides of current and past wetland maps. Suddenly, DeWitt’s maps went to black on our screen as the projector developed a problem reading the information on the computer. Without missing a beat, DeWitt exclaimed, “This is the way the wetland looks at night!”

Touring the Waubesa Wetlands

The Yahara Watershed Academy was fortunate to have the chance to take a tour of the Waubesa Wetlands with Cal DeWitt. The tour started in the yard of his home. His home is located on a drumlin within the wetlands. All of the drumlins are oriented from northeast to southwest and were left behind after the last glaciation.

DeWitt’s yard displayed 70 species of plants, orchards made up of apple, peach, cherry, and plum trees, a large bur oak older than the state of Wisconsin, and many animals. There was a high voltage power line running past the side of his property providing a perfect nest for an American Osprey.

Cal DeWitt YWA May 2019 Bur Oak
Cal DeWitt shows the Yahara Watershed Academy the variety of trees and plants on his property. He is gesturing toward a large bur oak tree. He said bur oaks are fire resistant.

Peat is neat

The property is located approximately one mile from Lake Waubesa. DeWitt’s land served as the location for decades of University of Wisconsin wetland ecology classes. It acted as a large laboratory to hundreds of students. DeWitt told stories about the studies performed in the Waubesa Wetlands. He told about taking core samples of the peat. The peat provides layer upon layer of information. The layers show that some of the peat may be 12,000 years old.

“Peat is not only peat, but it’s neat!”

Dr. Cal DeWitt

Just beneath the peat is a thin layer of blue clay. It is made up a very fine glacial flour. The glacial retreat caused molecules to vibrate against each other in what is known as “Brownian Motion,” leaving behind a thin layer of clay. Clay beneath the peat helps keep the water sealed into the wetland. The blue clay is also known as bentonite clay and is used by plumbers to seal wells because of its wonderful water sealing properties.

Panorama of the Waubesa Wetlands
Panorama of the Waubesa Wetlands

Irreplaceable wetlands

Wetlands cannot be replaced. DeWitt used an analogy comparing wetlands to libraries. He said the layers in the peat are like books. If the wetlands disappear, it’s like getting rid of all of the books in the library so that we no longer have historical recordings.

DeWitt’s stories represent decades of love and appreciation for the wetlands. There is a strip of land beneath the large high voltage power lines. Back in the 1960s, the land was filled in to build the power line.

The strip of land through the wetland now provides a path where animals congregate and travel. DeWitt said he’s been known to sit on a camp stool in the shrubs on the side of the path and watch the wildlife as it passes. He has seen deer and coyotes pass by at close range. One day, a 16-point buck came face to face with DeWitt as he sat hidden in the brush.

Waubesa Wetlands Power Line
High voltage power line running through the Waubesa Wetlands. There is a strip of land beneath the power line that wildlife uses to cross the wetlands.

Evolution of the wetlands

There have been some changes in the 50 years Cal DeWitt and his wife, Ruth, have called the Waubesa Wetlands their home. DeWitt can remember a time when there were many boxelder trees nearby. Boxelder trees like to grow near water, but are not native to the wetland. DeWitt wasn’t a fan of the boxelder trees, but had a strong appreciation for beavers. He considers beavers to be important engineers of the wetland. One year, the beavers built a large dam, causing water to flood around the boxelder trees. In just one summer, the beavers had killed off the boxelder trees, allowing the wetland to return to a more native state.

“The marsh teaches you things.”

Dr. Cal DeWitt

More than a textbook

As Cal DeWitt concluded his tour and oral history of the Waubesa Wetlands, he explained that some of what he has told us has been written down, but some of the information cannot be found in textbooks. Textbooks just cannot cover everything.

Yahara Watershed Academy - May 2019, Waubesa Wetlands
Yahara Watershed Academy tours the Waubesa Wetlands with Cal DeWitt

DeWitt wrote a book that was never published called, “Beholding Things We Cannot See.” That book title is the idea that began this article. The Yahara Watershed Academy learned so much from DeWitt during our time together. We absorbed the sights and sounds around us, and we appreciated the chance to behold the things we cannot see.

“Thanks for sharing my joy for this!”

Dr. Cal DeWitt

Jake Walsh and the Spiny Water Flea

Jake Walsh is a Freshwater Ecologist with the University of Wisconsin Center for Limnology. He is an expert on aquatic invasive species, such as the spiny water flea and zebra mussels. Invasives are species that are nonnative in origin and are also impactful. Walsh explained that there are more than 180 nonnative species in the Great Lakes. However, only a fraction of those have adverse effects.

Invasive species can have global impacts. They can change how ecosystems function, they can drive extinctions of other species, and they can affect our economies and human well-being.

Evolving lake food webs

Lake food webs often determine where things grow, and invasive species can have profound effects on those food webs. Walsh calls Daphnia an unsung hero of the lake. They graze on all of the algae in the lake. When we have Daphnia in the water, we see clearer lakes. However, the spiny water flea, which was discovered in Lake Mendota in 2009, has decreased Daphnia populations.

The spiny water flea is an invasive predatory zooplankter that is only about three millimeters long. It feeds on Daphnia, and in turn causes water clarity to decrease. Since the spiny water flea invasion, Daphnia has decreased in number by about 60%. This decrease is equivalent to a one meter decrease in water clarity.

Daphnia versus Spiny Water Flea
When spiny water flea populations increase, Daphnia populations typically decrease. The result is a drop in water clarity in the lake.

Paying for water clarity

Poor water clarity in our lakes can affect our economy. In 2001, a study showed citizens would pay $350 per household to increase water clarity by one meter. If we took that same study and updated it for present day values, countywide people would be willing to pay $140,000,000 to gain one meter of water clarity in Lake Mendota. This number was acquired through random sampling of people through Dane County.  

Changing lake ecology

Walsh worked on a computer model to see if we could offset the phosphorus load to the lakes to change water clarity. His research determined that to get pre-invasion (of the spiny water flea) clarity in Lake Mendota under post invasion grazing, would take a 71% reduction in phosphorus loading. In other words, the spiny water flea reversed a lot of phosphorus reduction progress by simply changing the lakes’ ecology. Even more phosphorus reduction needs to occur because of the decrease in algae grazing Daphnia.

Phosphorus versus Spiny Water Flea
Model prediction showing how phosphorus loading needs to change based on the spiny water flea invasion

Targeting high traffic zones

About eight million species in the world are connected by trade and travel. The St. Lawrence Seaway is a major route through North America, which has the potential to become a freeway for invasives. To stop the reach of invasives, we need to first target high traffic lakes and waterways.

St. Lawrence Seaway Shipping Route
The St. Lawrence Seaway in a high traffic shipping route, and also a means of spreading invasive species.
Global Shipping Routes
About 8 million species are connected through global shipping routes.

Prevention is the most cost-effective management strategy, and awareness is necessary for prevention. It’s tough to manage invasive species if we don’t know they are there. As for the future of Lake Mendota, spiny water fleas tend to favor colder water. Some computer models suggest that as our climate warms, the spiny water flea may become less of a problem in Lake Mendota. However, there are always new invasive species ready to make their home in southern Wisconsin. As our climate changes and global transport continues, the lakes of the Yahara Watershed could feel the effects of additional invasives in the future.

Behold our watershed

The May Yahara Watershed Academy was all about understanding what we cannot always see. From wetlands, the occasionally forgotten piece of the water world, to tiny invasive species that can have big effects on our watershed – it was a day to behold the things we cannot always see. It was a day to behold our watershed as a whole and the water bodies that lie within. One woman in class summarized the day by saying, “The wonder of it all!”

Read about past Yahara Watershed Academy classes

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