The Eau Claire River Watershed Strategy
A good plan provides goals and actionable strategies as identified by the community.
In 2015-2016, a Coalition of residents, landowners, lake groups, farmers, public agencies, and various other stakeholders worked together to identify sustainable solutions to keep our surface waters clean and our soils healthy.
The planning effort included science-based analysis and learning more together about the water quality opportunities and challenges facing our Watershed's rivers, lakes, and streams.
The resulting plan - Healthy Soils & Healthy Waters: A Community Strategy for the Eau Claire River Watershed - was approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in July 2017 as a watershed 9-Key Element Plan.
What is a 9-Key Element Plan?
Section 319 of the Federal Clean Water Act focuses on non-point source pollution, such as phosphorus runoff. To be eligible for certain Section 319 grant dollars, the proposed grant project must be identified in an EPA-approved 9-Key Element Plan for the watershed. Many of the most commonly used Federal and State water quality and agricultural grant programs are Section 319 funded.
The ultimate goal of a 9-Key Element Plan is to identify strategies to reduce non-point runoff so surface water quality standards and uses (e.g., fishing, swimming, habitat) can be met and maintained. A watershed's 9-Key Element Plan must have measurable estimates for non-point source pollutant loading, expected load reduction, and progress indicators. Each plan must also include nine-required elements, such as identifying the sources of pollution, an educational component, an implementation schedule, and a monitoring strategy.
The rivers, lakes, and streams of the Eau Claire River Watershed are unsurpassed assets and valued resources worth protecting.
About the Eau Claire River Watershed Strategy
This 9-Key Element Plan encompasses the rivers, lakes, and streams within the 882 square miles of the Eau Claire River Watershed. This includes parts of five counties - Eau Claire (47%), Clark (38.5%), Chippewa (9%), Taylor (3.8%), and Jackson (1.5%). Our rivers connect our wild, scenic shorelands, large areas of public forest, wildlife habitat, and productive farmlands with our small towns and urban communities.
Our waters are great recreational assets with outstanding fisheries, including 240 miles of trout streams. However, as of 2016, 141 miles of streams and 535 acres of lakes have been designated as impaired (303d listed) under the Clean Water Act as not meeting minimum water quality standards. 79% of these impairment records were due to phosphorus. An additional 21% were related to degraded habitat, often due to sedimentation.
When runoff and soil erosion containing nutrients such as phosphorus washes into our water bodies, the result is excess nutrient and sediment loading. These nutrients can result in unhealthy and unsightly algae blooms as well as suffocate fish and aquatic life. And sedimentation reduces clarity as well as destroys habitat and fish nurseries. The primary objective of the Eau Claire River Watershed Strategy is to reduce phosphorus loading from non-point sources. And since phosphorus and sediment "travel together", if we manage phosphorus, we are also managing sediment.
An Unique, Citizen-Led Approach
We’ve tried regulations and incentives, yet water quality continues to be a problem in the watershed—so this planning effort took a new approach. During the project, we engaged in a community conversation on local needs, actions, and benefits. It is your property, your farm, and your lakes, rivers, and streams. Participants were asked, “What can we do to help you reach your goals?” Concerns, ideas, and strategies from watershed residents, lake groups, and other stakeholder groups were then incorporated into the plan. True change will take time and requires action by all partners.
A few things make the Eau Claire River Watershed Strategy especially unique:
The large watershed size required a "bottom-up approach" that considered and integrated the concerns, plans, and programs occurring locally, most notably the efforts of the lake organizations at Lake Altoona, Lake Eau Claire, and Mead Lake who have a long history of water quality management and grassroots advocacy. A summary of these local trends and efforts can be found in Appendix C of the plan.
A Coalition was formed to guide development of the plan. The Coalition desired that the plan “tell a story”, provide information on existing plans and the different sub-watersheds, and reflect why we love our streams and lakes. As such, the plan scope grew beyond the typical 9-key element plan to include recreation, fisheries, habitat, and invasive species. The Coalition has continue to meet regularly to advocate for and monitor plan implementation.
The plan places a great emphasis on soil health, citizen engagement, and civic governance. Our new approach must foster stakeholder attitude change, peer-to-peer networking, and build the capacity of residents to take action, instead of the regulatory and incentive-based approaches of the past. To this end, the document stresses the importance of soil health concepts for the economic benefit of farmers (not just for water quality) as the overall strategy for addressing phosphorus loading.
Eau Claire County Land Conservation was the lead project agency for the planning effort with project facilitation provided by West Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (WCWRPC), modeling support from Olson Environmental Research (OE Research) and WDNR, and a brief sociological assessment of watershed farmers performed by UW-Stevens Point Center for Land Use Education.