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What is adaptive management and how is it used in watersheds?

Progressive Dairyman Editor Karen Lee Published on 24 November 2017

Adaptive management is similar to nutrient trading, wherein point sources and non-point sources can team up to cost-effectively trade to achieve pollution reduction goals. In Wisconsin, adaptive management is a phosphorus compliance option offered by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to improve water quality.

At the PDPW Business Conference held in Madison, Wisconsin, earlier this year, two dairy producers and a representative from one of the state’s largest sewerage districts discussed the ins and outs of the adaptive management programs they joined.



Not only is it proving to reduce phosphorus levels in area waters, but it is also bringing together urban and rural organizations and allowing farmers to showcase their stewardship of the land.

Eric Cooley, co-director, University of Wisconsin Discovery Farms Program, explained adaptive management is a viable option for any body of water that is over the quality criteria set by the DNR. It is a very flexible program, as it doesn’t specify how the reduction should be accomplished.

Several groups have already joined together and are making adaptive management work in their watersheds.

“The only way we’re ever going to meet water quality goals is if we all work together,” David Taylor said.

Taylor is the director of ecosystem services for the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District and a member of the first adaptive management project in the state. He said no two adaptive management projects are going to look or feel the same, and the one in the Madison area is probably more complex than others need to be.


The Yahara WINS project serves the Yahara watershed, which is part of the Rock River basin in south-central Wisconsin and, ultimately, a section of the Upper Mississippi River basin. The Yahara watershed is approximately 540 square miles, and its total maximum daily load (TMDL) identifies 25 urban point sources and seven other point sources, including a fish hatchery operated by the DNR.

The initial estimate asked for point and non-point sources to reduce phosphorus by 106,000 pounds per year.

Taylor said they started with a four-year pilot project with 30 different partners in the upper portion of the watershed.

“This is not for the faint of heart. The idea of getting cities, villages and towns and wastewater treatment plants all to play in the same sandbox is really, really difficult. That was really the focus of the pilot project – could we get all of these people to work together when the stakes were relatively low?” Taylor said.

Every city, village and town participated in the pilot project. Each was asked to sign a memorandum of understanding and contribute financially. There were also a number of other entities that participated, including Yahara Pride Farms, a farmer-led conservation group.

The Yahara WINS project never actually put a single practice on the landscape. Instead, it funded and facilitated the implementation of practices by its partners. For example, it provided roughly $300,000 of funding to the Yahara Pride Farms group to distribute through cost-sharing to farmers who adopted new conservation practices.


On the urban side, it funded various solutions from leaf and storm water management to construction site erosion and inspection.

The pilot project ended in 2015, and interest was expressed to move to a full-scale project. A plan was drafted throughout the following year, and it began on Jan. 1, 2017. This time, the cities, towns and villages were asked to sign a 20-year intergovernmental agreement.

Nearly all municipal entities signed the new contract. Taylor said a couple of towns updated their storm water modeling and found they were meeting their regulatory obligations, so they opted out of the contract. However, “virtually all of those that didn’t sign the contract entered into memorandum of understanding with us and are contributing financially even though they don’t have to,” he said.

After urban and rural improvements were made during the pilot project, the watershed’s goal to reduce phosphorus is now down to 96,000 pounds per year. There are multiple funding sources in the agreement, including cities, villages and towns; wastewater treatment facilities; agricultural producers through cost-sharing; and county and federal government assistance. Together they have committed to $94 million over the 20-year period. “It’s not cheap,” Taylor said.

By combining resources, he said they could achieve more together at less cost than if everyone took independent actions.

While the dozens of entities in the Yahara watershed are making this work, Taylor said it hasn’t been a smooth path to success. He said a few things to keep in mind for anyone embarking on a project like this is to try to keep from pointing fingers from one group to another, keep things simple, work to understand the challenges for all of the different partners and expect mistakes to be made along the way. Through it all, it is important to keep moving forward.

Jeff Endres, dairy producer and chairman of Yahara Pride Farms, said it was important to come to the table with this adaptive management project. With the TMDL in place, and the Yahara River classified as an impaired waterway, everyone impacting water quality is required to reduce phosphorus contamination.

“Even if we wouldn’t be doing this adaptive management, agriculture would still have to do its fair share. It only made sense for us to team up with this cause,” Endres said.

As mentioned earlier, the adaptive management project provides Yahara Pride Farms with funding, but it does not stipulate the practices that need to be done. The farmer-led group is able to determine which practices will make the most difference on the landscape.

It now provides cost-sharing for cover crops, low-disturbance manure injection and strip tillage. “Most of these were practices that were not being done in the watershed,” Endres said.

They are also looking into headland stacking manure and composting as an option for manure storage during high-risk runoff times of the year. It is currently being done on a trial basis to gather numbers for a potential cost-share program in the future.

(Editor’s note: To see how Endres is composting manure on his farm, read the article Dairy producer finds benefits are starting to outweigh costs of composting)

At the same time, the group has started analyzing what happens when two or more of these practices are combined.

“When you double practices, you get double benefit,” Endres said, “but what really happens is over three to four years, you get a big bump in rotational P [phosphorus] at the end of the cycle.”

In accepting the funding, the producers must provide an annual summary of information and phosphorus report. (See results from the past four years in the table below.)

In addition to cost-sharing for conservation practices, Yahara Pride Farms offered a certification assessment program. Thirty-six farms and nearly 30,000 acres were assessed by an independent, non-regulatory third party. Upon revisiting farms three or four years later, it was found that many of them had made the recommended improvements.

John Koepke is a dairy producer from southeastern Wisconsin. He has been involved in the start-up of a producer-led organization in his area known as Farmers for Lake Country. This group is based in the Oconomowoc River watershed, which is a lot smaller than the Yahara watershed but does contain three counties and 13 lakes.

This watershed is also in the Rock River basin and, therefore, the Upper Mississippi River basin.

In its inaugural year, this group focused on education. It hosted a field day with demonstrations related to cover crops and a conference with various speakers.

It also became a partner in the Oconomowoc Watershed Protection Program. With funding from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the city of Oconomowoc and a few other sources, the Farmers for Lake Country is offering incentives for farmers who adopt certain conservation practices for the first time. These practices include no-till planting, no-till or strip-till fertilizer application and establishing cover crops.

“There is quite a bit of interest in aerial applying rye or wheat into standing soybeans and corn. I think this is going to be, by far, our most successful program that we put forward. Without a lot of promotion, it looks like we have over 1,000 acres already,” Koepke said.

The group is continuing to focus on communications and building its network of producers. It wants to establish a sense of pride in being good conservationists and is working on a recognition program with field signs that can be posted along the road affirming it is a water-friendly farm or a supporter of Farmers for Lake Country.

Koepke said they have developed a set of criteria for farms to follow and are working to obtain third-party verification for the program.

“Ultimately, we want it to mean something. Hopefully this is worth more in the end than that [subsidy] check somebody got for trying no-till,” Koepke said.

A successful conservation program does not occur overnight; it requires a long-term vision and multiple steps to get there. Koepke said it is important for farmers to work together to ensure the success of their businesses and the viability of agriculture in the state. He added that municipalities need to recognize farmers and landowners as long-term partners in the community.

Adaptive management programs are an option to bring these various entities together to accomplish more conservation throughout a watershed than what any one individual, organization, company or municipality could do on its own.  end mark

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Yahra Pride Farms phosphorus reduction