Summer 2021


A road undulates through Wisconsin’s Pepin County, where CALS students and researchers lent their expertise to water quality efforts as part of UW’s UniverCity Year program. Photo by Tim Mattimore


At a sweeping bend of the Mississippi River, where the waterway widens and flows through shimmering Lake Pepin, tourists come to snarf slabs of homemade pie, stroll through artisan shops, and enjoy water sports.

Pepin County, situated at a sweeping bend in the Mississippi River, is the state’s smallest county by land area.

This is northwest Wisconsin’s Pepin County, whose zigzag boundaries enclose 249 square miles, making it the state’s smallest county by land area. Home to only 7,265 people, it’s also one of the smallest by population. But every year, Pepin County draws gobs of tourists with its remarkable views of valleys and bluffs and the sweet, crusty allure served up at the renowned Stockholm Pie and General Store. Downriver, in the village of Pepin, fans of literature make pilgrimages to the birthplace of Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose Little House on the Prairie and other children’s books have entertained generations.

From Devil’s Corner to Durand, Porcupine to Stockholm, Pepin County is one of Wisconsin’s jewels, picturesque and charming. But no community is perfect. Underlying all those beguiling snippets of rural Dairyland life are perplexing problems and concerns.

Similar issues exist all around the state, but they aren’t going unnoticed or unaddressed. A UW–Madison program called the UniverCity Year is partnering with communities across Wisconsin to find solutions to knotty problems and bolster the quality of life for the state’s citizens. And students, faculty, and staff from CALS are helping to tackle those challenges by bringing research to bear on Main Street issues — in Pepin County and beyond.

“We make the Wisconsin Idea very practical and tangible,” says Gavin Luter, managing director for the UniverCity Year program. “We get people from the university working hand in hand with people at the local level to build their capacity to do good self-governance.”

UniverCity Year was developed by the UniverCity Alliance, a collection of faculty and staff members from across campus who share a common interest in local governments. The first project launched in 2016 in the city of Monona, near Madison. Since then, communities across the state have benefited from the three-year-long partnership. Using university expertise, they have tackled challenges as wide-ranging as economic development, senior housing, prisoner reentry into society, child- care, and toxic blue-green algae buildup in lakes.

Each spring, the program accepts applications for projects from localities. The communities are asked to commit $20,000 to $30,000 to each thematic area — such as housing or sustainability — that they would like to have addressed.

The first year is devoted to understanding the scope of the projects and matching them with appropriate faculty and students. The work, with set deliverables, is completed in the second year, and in the third year, participants target ways to put the results into action.

“We are embedded in local governments, helping them solve challenges where they don’t have expertise on their own — and even if they do, they don’t have the bandwidth to handle everything,” Luter adds.

UniverCity Year also frees faculty from the sometimes-difficult chore of finding partners for meaningful class projects. And it provides institutional structure for those projects.

In Pepin County, 186 students, faculty, and staff from six UW schools and colleges participated in 25 projects. From tourism marketing to educational analysis to stormwater mitigation and wastewater treatment, classes and faculty researched problems and helped point the way to solutions.

“We’ve given design recommendations to the village of Stockholm to prevent flooding in their small downtown, and the village of Pepin got a walking tour app that was created by our computer science students,” Luter says. “They got a lot of tangible things that they can point to and say, ‘UW helped us do that.’”

A large part of Pepin County borders the Mississippi River, seen here from Maiden Rock Bluff State Natural Area. The natural beauty of the area attracts numerous tourists. Photo by Aaron Carlson, CC BY-SA 2.0

One of the main focus areas for UniverCity Year’s Pepin County project was groundwater quality, specifically nitrate contamination. That’s where CALS students and researchers shared their expertise. Water quality is a sensitive issue in the county.

Nitrates arise from various sources, including farm fields — where nitrate-rich fertilizers and manure are spread — and aging septic systems. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in 2019 reported that 20% of tested private wells in the county exceeded the hazardous limit on nitrate content.

Bret Shaw, associate professor of life sciences communication and environmental communication specialist for the UW–Madison Division of Extension, and graduate student Theresa Vander Woude conducted a survey of Pepin County farmers. They used the responses to develop a framework for communications strategies to promote agricultural best practices and conservation methods that could help ease the problem. The survey examined whom farmers trust for information on groundwater quality issues, what best practices they were likely to use to minimize nitrates, and the obstacles to adopting nutrient management techniques.

The results will inform how local land managers can best communicate the problem to farmers. “We looked at what practices farmers have done and what they are willing to do. That has implications for planning and reaching out to people,” says Shaw, an expert in social marketing.

For example, the survey shows that farmers like to get information about groundwater quality issues from (in preferential order) crop advisors and agronomists, county land and conservation experts, U.S. Department of Agriculture officials, UW–Madison Division of Extension officials, and other farmers in Pepin County. They place less confidence in seed and fertilizer dealers, consumers, and trade publications. Elected officials ranked last on the list.

The survey also addressed nutrient management techniques and gauged which ones farmers are most likely to adopt to manage nitrate use. Results showed that farmers are more likely to plant cover crops and utilize split (i.e., smaller but more frequent) applications of fertilizers. They are less likely to use compost or remove fields from production.

“A lot of strategic communication is knowing your audience,” says Vander Woude, a master’s student in the Department of Life Sciences Communication and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. “There are some good opportunities for thinking about how to best communicate about removing underperforming parts of a field from production or incorporating more manure composting, which are less widely used methods.”

When farmers were asked about their satisfaction with financial incentives and with technical support for nitrate-reducing practices, about 25% answered “don’t know” for the former, and about 20% gave the same answer for the latter. Most responded positively or neutrally. However, there were more negative responses on financial incentives than on technical support — an example of how different people have different motivators. Knowing those motivators makes it easier to tailor effective communication plans, Shaw and Vander Woude say.

Vander Woude found that the UniverCity Year project broadened her experience in an area outside of south-central Wisconsin and opened doors to real- world research applications.

“I don’t know that I would have been engaged in a project like this otherwise — connected to the northwest part of the state, directly talking with land conservation professionals, and interviewing farmers,” she says. “It connected us to a community that really did want to work with researchers.”

Shaw says the Pepin County survey — the results of which were presented virtually at the Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation’s annual conference in March — shows promise as a template.

“I hope we’re creating a model that other counties and other regions of the state could tweak, refine, and scale up,” Shaw says. “Every part of the state is a little bit different, but the questions we’re asking are probably universal across the state, even if the results wouldn’t be.”

Chase Cummings worked closely with the UniverCity Year groundwater projects as Pepin County’s conservationist before moving to the same post in Dunn County last January. He says Shaw’s and Vander Woude’s findings are important in understanding how to engage landowners and affect change.

“We’ve had anecdotal conversations, but you’re never quite sure how honest people are,” Cummings says. “The project really helped get at what are the true feelings in the farming community and how that affects their decision-making. How do we help build capacity for them to understand and for us to understand what the challenges are — and how do we overcome them?”

Two researchers participating in the UniverCity Year program surveyed Pepin County farmers about their sources for water quality information and their nutrient management techniques, and the responses helped them develop strategies that land managers can use to better communicate with farmers about problems and solutions.
Photo by Tim Mattimore

For another UniverCity Year project, soil science professors Nick Balster and Stephen Ventura engaged students in their Soil Science 499/Environmental Studies 600 course to examine other aspects of groundwater quality in Pepin County. The semester-long capstone course is designed to provide students from three majors (environmental sciences, soil science, and environmental studies) with a real-world challenge that involves interactions with actual clients.

“Through facilitated consultations with the client, the students define their final product, and we put them in the driver’s seat of figuring out how they’re going to accomplish the goal,” Balster says.

A steady rise in nitrate contamination rates in private wells across the county spurred the class to create susceptibility maps that identified areas in Pepin County with a high likelihood of water contamination. As one of their deliverables, they developed a handout to help residents assess the quality of their drinking water and how to take action.

“Our goals were helping students understand things like project management, interpersonal dynamics, and personal communications skills,” says Ventura, an emeritus professor of soil science and environmental studies.

Balster, who also studies teaching and learning in environmental science, says the class began with an overview of groundwater issues and nitrate contamination in wells. Then they transitioned to a more hands-on approach and project development.

Students interacted with county personnel and other officials in Pepin County to gauge the extent of the problem and gain their perspectives — and get a sense of what a real-world client would expect as a deliverable. They also learned how to take on project design, deal with deadlines, perform skills assessments of classmates, and manage subgroups to tackle various aspects of the project in a timely manner.

“They coalesced around an informational pamphlet that could be put into county offices, handed out to homeowners and others to explain the issue succinctly and summarize its environmental importance,” Balster says.

The project, which was completed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, also encountered some bumps along the way, Balster notes. “[The students] got way ahead of their timeline and made arrangements to stop at a few farms for interviews without checking in with our county contacts to get it all okayed in advance,” he says.

Cummings says that because the subject is so sensitive and residents can be defensive about the issue, students pulled back on those plans. Both he and Balster note, however, that even that experience provided a valuable object lesson in how to work with clients.

And, Luter adds, “Even though a project may not go perfectly, it still ends up being beneficial for everyone involved because they’ve given time and dedicated mental resources to sit down and think through an issue. People have told us that’s been really invaluable.”

The pamphlet the students ultimately produced summarized the problem and implications, as well as prevention strategies and resources, in seven pages. Along with the pamphlet, they produced a 25-page research paper that included five maps that conveyed the susceptibility of nitrate contamination based on drainage, infiltration, and leaching for soils.

Ventura led graduate students in his technology-oriented Environmental Monitoring Seminar in another Pepin County–based project. Since private waste disposal systems, fertilizer, and animal wastes can all contribute to groundwater nitrate contamination, students were challenged to provide relevant information without exacerbating conflict between farmers and other rural residents — in other words, to display well water quality without pointing fingers.

The project aimed to educate the public on the importance of water quality while preserving the privacy of residents and encouraging them to work collaboratively. Students analyzed 15 to 20 years of well water sampling data to come up with their maps.

“The maps didn’t point fingers directly at individual wellheads or sample points,” Ventura says. “It provided a more generalized view of areas in the county where there were high levels. It did so in a time series that allowed them to develop an animation that showed changing patterns over time.”

A version of this map was included in a pamphlet that students created to educate the public on the importance of water quality. It shows areas with the highest level of projected risk for nitrate contaminants in private well water in Pepin County. Image created in ArcMap

Later this year, UniverCity Year will partner with Marathon County, Racine County, the village of Waunakee, and Milwaukee to tackle community-based challenges. Marathon County administrator Lance Leonhard is enthusiastic about the collaboration.

“In an environment with constantly tightening budgets, local governments are always looking for partnerships to help us develop strategies to accomplish our goals,” says Leonhard. “We are excited to be part of the UniverCity program because it’s an opportunity for us to address needs across a wide range of subject areas.”

Cummings says UniverCity Year produced practical results for Pepin County and for the faculty and students that lent their expertise to solving community-based problems.

“There aren’t a lot of opportunities to connect with the university in such a broad fashion,” Cummings says. “It’s also a unique chance to check off things you might have had on to-do lists for long-term planning. But it wasn’t all about us. It was about the students, too. It was a mutual education experience. It worked for everybody.”

UniverCity Year is made possible by financial support from American Family Insurance, the Evjue Foundation, UW–Madison’s Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment, COWS, the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, and UW alumni John Holton and Patrick Thiele.

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