Caring for Wisconsin’s Cold Waters

Feature Stories Spring 2015 Issue

Caring for Wisconsin’s Cold Waters

By Jessica Luhning | Photos By Jim Klousia 0

Cradled between the political boundaries of Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and Michigan, you’ll find nearly 35 million acres of earth and inland waters that comprise present-day Wisconsin— a state where 80 percent of its boundaries are clearly defined by rivers and lakes.

An impressive geologic history coupled with human intervention has created nearly one million acres of inland water, nearly three percent of the state’s total area. In Middle America, only Michigan can claim more of a watery influence. Wisconsin’s very existence has been and will be shaped by water, frozen or flowing. It is no wonder the state’s inhabitants are such fierce lovers and defenders of this critical and highly sensitive resource.

In numbers, Wisconsin claims 6.4 million acres of Lakes Michigan and Superior to the east and north, 95,000 acres of the Mississippi River to the west, 15,000 inland lakes, 84,000 miles of rivers and streams, 5.3 million acres of wetlands, and four aquifers filled with 1.2 quadrillion gallons of groundwater (Wisconsin’s Water Library & Wisconsin DNR, Dec. 2014).

"These waters interact to form an integrated hydrological system: life’s essential element, our most precious resource, and an asset of inestimable global significance” (Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, 2003).

The sheer magnitude and influence of water in this mitten-shaped state is stunning, and the level of responsibility we have to act as ethical stewards is immeasurable. Because even though water is quite literally everywhere in Wisconsin, it is considered a scarce resource (Marcouiller, 1999). If you live, work and play in Wisconsin, water is your common ally, your connector and your future.

While our Great Lakes and grand rivers receive their fair share of (much-warranted) love and attention, there are an equally significant set of waters that affect us just as deeply—waters that connect neighbor to neighbor and community to community. These are the coldwater streams, creeks and tributaries of our local watersheds. They often receive a lesser share of the spotlight, being less aggressive or grandiose, often hidden and even unknown, yet they play a critical role in supporting the health of our foodsheds and the ecosystems that support us.

Wisconsin’s coldwater streams are exactly that— cold—with maximum summer temperatures not exceeding 71.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Coldwater streams are typically found in headwater areas with riparian protection that moderates temperatures and creates critical habitat for a number of aquatic plant and animal species, most notably, the brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) and brown trout (Salmo trutta).

While not as diverse as warmwater streams, coldwater communities are largely dominated by a number of aquatic invertebrates and numerous, typically small freshwater fish of the family Cottidae, called sculpins. More so, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) recognizes a significant number of critically sensitive birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians that rely on coldwater steam habitats, including the belted kingfisher, eastern red bat and pickerel frog.

Anglers, biologists and naturalists alike make a big deal of these waters, and rightly so. Often referred to simply as “trout streams,” these waters play a major role in the present and future environmental and economic health of our state. In the Driftless Area, which includes portions of Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin, the trout fishing industry generates $1.1 billion every year by both in-area and out-ofarea anglers (Trout Unlimited, 2008). Statewide in Wisconsin, angling generates $1.7 billion annually, which creates an economic ripple effect of $5 billion every year. Wisconsin’s coldwater streams are mostly located in rural areas, so a billion-dollar industry with minimal to no negative environmental impact and the ability to support and grow service industries is a major boon for our state’s rural communities.

Wisconsin is home to 2,989 classified coldwater trout streams stretching more than 13,176 miles— nearly 2.5 round-trips from New York City to Los Angeles. That’s a lot of streams to fish and a lot of habitat to protect.

The Wisconsin DNR uses three categories to classify trout streams—Classes 1, 2 and 3. The streams that draw the most attention statewide and nationally are the 5,400 miles of Class 1 streams. Class 1 streams are defined by the DNR as “high quality trout waters that have sufficient natural reproduction to sustain populations of wild trout, at or near carry capacity.”

Some of southern Wisconsin’s Class 1 streams most prized by anglers and naturalists include Black Earth Creek in Dane County, Big Green River and Castle Rock Creek in Grant County, Timber Coulee in La Crosse and Vernon Counties and the West Fork of the Kickapoo River in Vernon County. Class 1 streams are like candy for trout anglers—candy that draws them (mostly men but an increasing number of women) by the thousands from March through September, with peak months in May and June.

The impact of the coldwater fishing industry on the Driftless Area is apparent. Though a gentle and often unassuming sport, the presence of hip-wadered men in brown mesh vests and muck boots is a common sight from early summer to fall. Once-empty country roads and narrow bridges are lined with outof- town SUVs. The cast of a fly-line might catch your eye as you zoom past, and you say to yourself, “Hmmm, one of these days I’m gonna try that.”

Protecting this critical habitat and the industry that thrives on it means caring for our watersheds. Human impact is the single biggest threat to Wisconsin’s coldwater habitats—specifically, polluted agricultural runoff, says Matt Krueger, river restoration program director for the River Alliance of Wisconsin and chapter president of the Southern Wisconsin Trout Unlimited. Polluted run-off from urban development and the increasing impacts of climate change will also continue to threaten the water quality and temperatures of our coldwater streams. According to Krueger, it is projected that by 2050 rising water temperatures will cause the highly sensitive brook trout populations to decline by 70 percent in the Driftless Area.

While the outlook can feel grim, there are ways to actively support our local watersheds.

Krueger cites Black Earth Creek in Dane County as “one of the best trout streams in the country.” But as the City of Madison continues to develop westward, the Black Earth Watershed is increasingly vulnerable. Erosion causes sedimentation of waterways. Agricultural run-off of nitrogen fertilizers and manure cause high nutrient loads. Urban development contributes chloride and road salt. Aquatic invasive species such as the New Zealand mud snail out-compete native macro-invertebrates. Combined, these factors can, in a very short time, dramatically change a stream and make it unsuitable habitat for coldwater fish. Today, Black Earth Creek is the focus of a major preservation and restoration effort involving landowners, citizen volunteers, non-profits and government agencies.

Farther west in Vernon County, the West Fork of the Kickapoo River maintains a passionate and dedicated angler following. Years of restoration work to repair the damage of frequent heavy floods and poor agricultural practices have resulted in miles of improved stream. In the village of Avalanche, you’ll find the West Fork Sportsman’s Club, an organized group of recreationists, naturalists, citizen activists and volunteers who make this one of the most loved coldwater streams in the state.

Water is the most critical resource issue of our lifetime
and our children’s lifetime.
The health of our waters is the principal measure of
how we live on the land.

Former USGS Chief Hydrologist and 
Son of Aldo Leopold


Concerning the role we can play in creating positive change, Matt Krueger offers a call to action: “There is no silver bullet. [The answer lies in] finding solutions locally to the issues impacting the health of our coldwater streams.” Through his work at the River Alliance, Krueger works to organize citizen watershed groups—a great resource if you are looking to get involved in your local watershed. There are currently 12 citizen groups in the Wisconsin River Basin and others farther west in the Kickapoo Watershed. Additionally, Wisconsin has 21 chapters of Trout Unlimited, all welcoming volunteers to further their mission.

A few years ago, the River Alliance was provoked by a “high level official,” who made comments regarding agriculture and our river ecosystems, saying, “We may have to sacrifice a few rivers to grow the food we need to grow” (River Alliance of Wisconsin, 2009).

“Our obligation is to be engaged locally,” says Krueger, “Bad laws allow bad operations a free pass to pollute. [As citizens,] we need to advocate for stronger incentives to improve water quality and the health of our watersheds.”

One of the more promising models of citizen, advocacy group and governmental partnerships is the Dane County Stream Bank Easement Acquisition Program, a program focused on protecting miles of coldwater streams through conservation easements and stream bank restoration. To date, 29 farmers and landowners have participated in protecting more than seven miles of critical habitat. Partnerships like this will be the future of stream health in Wisconsin.

If you live, work or play near or in Wisconsin’s cold waters, consider becoming an advocate for sustainable food and farming systems. Low-impact, topography-appropriate farming practices have the potential to exact the greatest positive impact on the future health of our coldwater resources. Preserving these waterways will, in turn, have an immeasurable ripple effect on the health of our neighbors and our communities.

Start by exploring your local streams and watersheds. Take a pasture walk, or find a conservation group near you by visiting, and become involved in local efforts. Vote with your fork and your ballot. Work locally to ensure your county and municipal regulations support appropriately sized and placed farming operations. Vote to keep soil in its place through watershed protection ordinances. Support sustainable food economies where the production of grass-fed, pasture- based meat is prized over commodity, corn-fed meat. Use your dollar to support organizations who advocate for healthy ecosystems. If nothing else, make friends with an angler and discover the natural riches in your backyard ecosystem. Catch your first brook trout and taste what it means to be stream-fed while caring for Wisconsin’s cold waters.

Works Cited

Marcouiller, D. a. (1999). Water Issues in Wisconsin-The Economic Value of Water. University of Wisconsin-Extension. 

River Alliance of Wisconsin. (2009). “Food, Farms and Rivers.” The FLOW newsletter.

Trout Unlimited. (2008). The Economic Impact of Recreational Trout Angling in the Driftless Area. 

Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters. (2003). Waters of Wisconsin: The Future of Our Aquatic Ecosystems and Resources

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. (2014, October 7). "Coldwater Streams.

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. (2014, December 16). "Rivers & Streams." 

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. (2014, January 24). "Trout Fishing in Wisconsin: Trout Stream Maps.

Wisconsin’s Water Library. “Wisconsin Water Facts.” University of Wisconsin Aquatic Sciences Center. Accessed 20 February 2015. 

Jessica Luhning is a writer intrigued by the origins of great flavor and inspired by people and places that care about good, clean food. With an M.S. in Geography and Natural Resource Planning she founded and guided the helm of the Wisconsin-based consulting firm EarthVision for seven years. Now exploring the mountains, forests and farms of central Oregon, she relishes in her new remote role as Grant & Resource Development Manager for Organic Valley. Writing, eating, planting, scheming and day-dreaming make full the spaces between honest work and family escapades.

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