A Research Network at the Nexus of Water and Agriculture

Wisconsin’s abundant rivers, lakes and streams helped the state become an agricultural leader. Yet agricultural processes, including irrigation and pesticide use, also greatly impact our state’s water quality and quantity.

One of the biggest challenges facing Wisconsin is determining how to maintain the state’s agricultural prominence while also ensuring plenty of safe water for drinking, recreational use, manufacturing and other uses.

Wisconsin’s diverse geographic areas further complicate the water challenges at the nexus of agriculture and water. Interdisciplinary teams are needed to identify opportunities that improve both agriculture processes and water health.

The Wisconsin Agriculture-Water Nexus Network (WAW2N), established with funding from the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin, is a cross-campus network of water researchers who are developing educational courses that will train students in agriculture-water management.

“We thought it would be good to introduce students to the water management issues across the state so they can be prepared to be employed anywhere in the state,” says Stephan Gunn, assistant professor at UW-Green Bay and lead researcher on the WAW2N project.

In 2022, faculty from UW-Green Bay, UW-Madison, UW-Platteville and UW-Stevens Point developed a pilot three-day field trip course built around regional variations in Wisconsin agriculture. The 21 students who enrolled in the course met with professionals in water and agricultural industries in three areas of the state.

In northeastern Wisconsin, one of the most intensive dairy regions in the United States, students talked with farmers about phosphorus and agricultural runoff treatment and monitoring. In central Wisconsin, an important vegetable-growing region, they learned about irrigation and how it affects groundwater. And in southwest-southcentral Wisconsin, they discussed best practices for grazing along streams as well as processes that remove harmful nutrients from wastewater before it’s released back into urban watersheds.

“Seeing the different soil and water issues across the state gave myself and other future natural resource managers a better feel for how certain issues carry over and differ from region to region,” says Dane Friis, who is majoring in Land Use Management and Planning at UW-Stevens Point.

Friis found the interaction with students and faculty at other UW schools to be beneficial. He particularly enjoyed talking with agronomy majors from UW Platteville, noting that their insight helped him understand what farmers need to grow viable crops while implementing management practices.

With a second round of funding, the WAW2N will expand to include UW-River Falls and UW-Stout. Faculty at the six institutions will offer learning modules that dive into the specific challenges of each of the three regions through an online course. The online course will be open to students on any of the campuses. A one-credit course offered each semester will include a three-day field trip during which students will come together to explore a specific region in Wisconsin and meet farmers and people from organizations working in the area.

Students will be able to take one or more of the courses, giving them a greater understanding of the geographic issues and connections between agriculture and water.

“Wisconsin has very different water quality issues depending on the specific region,” says UW-Madison student Micah Robinson, who participated in the pilot course. “Getting to see various regions gave me a broader understanding of water quality issues in the state, and better prepared me to solve unique water quality issues.”

Student Spotlight: An Nguyen, Environmental Science Undergraduate, UW-Stout

An Nguyen is an international student originally from Vietnam who is majoring in Environmental Science at UW-Stout. After graduation, she hopes to get a job in conservation and restoration areas that need testing and research.

Through the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin, she had the opportunity to complete an internship at the Environmental Research and Innovation Center (ERIC) at UW Oshkosh. From May to September 2022, 22 students from UW-Eau Claire, UW-Madison, UW-Milwaukee, UW Oshkosh, UW-Stevens Point, UW-Stout and UW-Whitewater worked in the ERIC and its community embedded labs, analyzing 2,200 water samples analyzed for business and community partners.

Here’s what Nguyen said about her experience at the ERIC lab.

Why did you want to work in the ERIC?

I was looking for a summer internship because I want to gain professional skills as well as figure out if I would like to work in a lab in the future.

What projects did you work on and what skills did you gain from that work?

Nguyen learned how to set up and maintain hydroponics system.

I took part in biogas testing, compost testing, bacteria testing and hydroponics. For biogas potential testing, I read gas volume and analyzed the portion of the gases in the eudio tubes. Regarding compost testing, I did total solid and volatile solid testings. To test for bacteria, we used media to examine the presence of coliforms in drinking water and surface water.

I grew tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and lettuce on a hydroponics system and learned how to set up the system and keep track of its pH, electronic conductivity, temperature, nitrate and nitrite frequently in order to adjust the amount of nutrients added.

Throughout these projects, I gained research skills, data management practices and applied theory to real-life testing. I am also aware of lab safety, quality assurance and quality control when carrying out tests.

Were there benefits to working in a lab at a different university?

I had the chance to work with students from different universities. They created and encouraged diversity in the workplace, letting us exchange ideas and build networks.

What was your favorite part about this research experience?

The favorite part is that I did not only take part in the lab procedure but was also involved in the sampling process and outreach activities, such as being a teaching assistant and boat inspector to act on invasive species. 

How will the skills in this internship help you attain your career goal?

Working in the lab helped me have a better idea of how real-life research takes place, increased my communication skills and expanded my networking.

Nov. 30 Deadline for Phosphorus Research Posters

The Center for Water Policy at UW-Milwaukee will co-host a day-long conference on February 7, 2023, called “Phosphorus: Lessons from 10+ Years of Numeric Standards for Wisconsin’s Waters.” This is a retrospective on Wisconsin’s phosphorus rules, analyzing implementation, compliance, and impact. The conference will connect academic researchers to water and agricultural/conservation professionals/agencies, farmers/producers, policymakers and the public; explore Wisconsin’s leading efforts to regulate and manage phosphorus. This conference will help inform a research agenda for the next decade and beyond.

The conference will feature research and case studies to foster discussion around policy mechanisms that address the ongoing challenge of phosphorus pollution. Academic researchers (including students) are invited to provide academic research posters related to the theme of this conference. Areas of particular interest are:

  • Status of phosphorus levels in Wisconsin’s waters
  • Connections between land use and phosphorus loading
  • Monitoring phosphorus levels in surface waters
  • What in Wisconsin’s phosphorus rules has been working, failing, not yet implemented
  • The role of water infrastructure funding to reduce costs of P control at wastewater treatment plants
  • Compliance options for phosphorus numeric criteria (variances, trading, adaptive management)
  • NR 151 agricultural performance standards
  • Management challenges
  • Potential solutions for farmers/producers (non-point, point source CAFOs, perennial grasslands)
  • Other creative directions for applied research and practice

Interested researchers should send a short description of 250 words or less about your poster topic to waterpolicy@uwm.edu by Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022. Please include your name, title and university. Up to 20 posters will be selected and on display throughout the conference, with dedicated time at the beginning and end of the day when attendees will be able to view the posters and interact with researchers.

This effort is supported in part by the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin.

Become a 2023 Freshwater@UW Summer Research Scholar

The FreshWater@UW Summer Scholar Research Program has 31 paid undergraduate research positions open at multiple UW System campuses. The program will run from May 31 through Aug. 5, 2023. Accepted students receive a $6,000 stipend, $600 meal allowance and provision of housing.

Find details and apply at this link: https://water.wisc.edu/wateruw-madison-undergraduate-research-experience The deadline is Feb. 15, 2023. 

These are unique opportunities for undergraduates to work closely with water-related faculty mentors and graduate students in their major discipline. There will be professional development and cross-campus programming, concluding with the chance for students to present results of their individual projects in a group setting.

Descriptions of each available project are posted on the FreshWater@UW project page. Applicants will be asked to identify their top five project preferences on the SROP application.

In-state undergraduate applicants are encouraged to select opportunities that are not on their home campus. Participating campuses for 2023 include Eau Claire, Green Bay, La Crosse, Madison, Manitowoc-Green Bay, Milwaukee, Oshkosh and Superior.

The 2023 freshwater science experiences are funded by the UW Water Resources Institute, the Wisconsin Sea Grant College Program and the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin.

Summer 2023 Student Field Research in the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico

Want to explore one of the most unique aquatic ecosystems in the world? Applications are being accepted for semester abroad freshwater research in Mexico. This program is offered through the School of Freshwater Sciences at UW-Milwaukee with the support from the National Science Foundation’s International Research Experience for Students (IRES) program.

It is open to undergraduate and graduate students from any accredited institution of higher education who are citizens or permanent residents of the United States with high promise of successfully completing the international experience. Students from any university or study discipline are encouraged to apply.

Enrollment is limited. Applications will be accepted on a rolling basis until February 1, 2023.

More about the program and application process. 

Download Flyer

Clean Boats Clean Waters​ Paid 2023 Summer Internships​

Located in beautiful northern Wisconsin, the Clean Boats Clean Waters (CBCW) program focuses on Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) in the Vilas County area and provides information to the boating public regarding AIS prevention.

Interns will gain valuable hands-on experience with the following responsibilities:  

  • Collecting and recording data in accordance with the Wisconsin Clean Boats Clean Waters program interview protocol 
  • Inspect boats, trailers, tow vehicles and related equipment for the presence of aquatic plants, animals, or water 
  • Compliance with Wisconsin laws, working alongside lake organizations and the Vilas County wardens, prohibiting launching or transporting of boats and related equipment with aquatic plants, animals, or water on board 
  • Conducting field research regarding water quality and terrestrial/AIS mapping for each landing 
  • Uploading collected data to a State database and UW Oshkosh database weekly ​​

Salary and Benefits

Interns receive a gross income of $5,000 for the summer with the opportunity to earn more, There is plenty of free time to have fun in the Northwoods or get a second job to earn more for school. There is a $1,250 travel is reimbursement for each intern. Also, housing (usually a local house) is provided and paid for by the University. You may also potentially sign-up for internship credits for your experience.​​

Apply by sending a resume and cover letter to klemmer@uwosh.edu, or contact the UW Oshkosh Environmental Research and Innovation Center (ERIC) from 8 a.m.-4 p.m. weekdays for more information. The ERIC is at 783 Pearl Avenue, just behind Kolf by the river. Apply early, as positions will be filled on rolling basis! Students from any UW school are welcome to apply.​​

We expect all positions to be filled by March 10, 2023!

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