Vanishing Waters?

Numerous lakes and streams are drying up in the Central Sands, but there’s little agreement on what’s causing it. An initiative led by CALS brings together scientists, farmers, residents, environmental advocates and other stakeholders to shed light on the problem and pave the way toward solutions.

Even before he bought a summer cabin on Long Lake in 2004, Brian Wolf was concerned about the water level. At its deepest point, the Waushara County lake was only about five feet deep, down from historical highs around 10 feet. “I contacted the folks at a state agency asking, ‘Can you tell me what’s up? I’m worried it’s a dying lake,’” says Wolf, a psychologist based in Kenosha. “The response I got back was, ‘There’s no such thing as a dying lake.’”

During his family’s first summer there, Wolf’s worries seemed unfounded. His children caught and released dozens of bass. But by the summer of 2006, the lake had gone almost completely dry—it was a muddy bed littered with dead fish. Now it’s just a grassy field that floods during rainy spells. “Do we still enjoy our cabin? Absolutely. Do we enjoy it as a lake place? No,” says Wolf. Property values dropped so much that “they basically stopped taxing folks on Long Lake as having lake property,” he says.

And Long Lake wasn’t the only place with water problems. Around the same time, a number of other lakes and streams in the Central Sands region, the heart of Wisconsin’s $6 billion potato and vegetable industry, went dry or hit record lows. A landscape once covered in prairie and scrub oak, the region is now a mosaic of circles—160-acre fields of potatoes, sweet corn, peas and other specialty vegetables watered by center-pivot irrigation systems. These systems keep the region’s crops alive between rains and are fed by high-capacity wells that each can pump more than 100,000 gallons per day from the region’s aquifer. Many of those concerned about the area’s disappearing surface waters see the pumps as the obvious culprit, sucking water up and away from local groundwater-fed lakes and streams. Yet the problem may not be that simple.

To help understand and solve the region’s growing water dilemma, CALS has launched a Central Sands Water Initiative with support from the college’s Wisconsin Institute for Sustainable Agriculture. The initiative aims to bring together a broad network of stakeholders—including farmers from the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association, members of local lake and environmental groups, state and federal agency staff, and scientists from UW–Madison and beyond—not only to study the impact of irrigation pumping on the region’s ground and surface waters, but also to find solutions to help refill the dry lakes and streams. At the same time, the initiative’s scientists also plan to explore the possibility that a larger force is altering the overall water balance in the region: climate change.

“Some believe the facts are well established, that irrigation is the only reason for the problem, but we don’t really know that yet,” says Sam Kung, a professor of soil science and the initiative’s coordinator. “It’s also possible that the region’s climate has changed in such a way that the atmosphere is taking more water away from the system.”

Either way, water shortages are expected to increase around the world, where 70 percent of the fresh water people use goes to food production.

“Water is on the cusp of being limited in a substantial way almost everywhere around the globe, and because of water’s importance in agriculture, it’s obvious that solutions will have to have an agricultural focus,” says A.J. Bussan PhD’97, a horticulture professor who leads the initiative’s crop production studies. “Through this initiative, the Central Sands has the potential to serve as a model for other places with multifaceted water demands, showing them how a community can come together to devise a water policy that’s effective.”

But getting the Central Sands community to sit down and talk won’t be easy. Its members are engaged in a contentious debate about the region’s water woes, and with so much at stake—including growers’ livelihoods, residents’ investments and the survival of local lakes and streams—it’s bound to be a difficult conversation.

“This isn’t the typical CALS situation where there’s a problem out there that everybody acknowledges, we marshal CALS science and go solve the problem, and everybody lives happily ever after,” says Peter Nowak, a rural sociologist and emeritus professor at UW’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies who last summer agreed to moderate a series of community forums for Central Sands citizens.