The Center for Water Policy will host a virtual Earth Month event featuring its 2022-23 Water Policy Scholar Dr. Laura Suppes speaking on assessing illness risk from PFAS drinking water exposures in Wisconsin.
April 27, 2023, 12-1 p.m. (Central Time)
Suppes is an associate professor of Public Health and Environmental Studies at UW-Eau Claire. She will be joined by her students Alex Barker and Camille Tilden, who are candidates for the bachelor of science in Environmental Public Health. Melissa Scanlan, director of the Center for Water Policy at UWM’s School of Freshwater Sciences, will provide an introduction.
PFAS are harmful chemicals that are being found in many of Wisconsin’s drinking water supplies. These chemicals can cause problems with our organs, hormones, development, and can even lead to reproductive complications. Dr. Suppes’ study assesses how dangerous it is for people to drink water contaminated with PFAS. Her research centers on people in Eau Claire but provides a risk assessment tool that can be customized for other communities.
Most people don’t know it, but Wisconsin is home to the largest processor and exporter of kidney beans in the world: Chippewa Valley Bean in Dunn County.
Kidney beans are a specialty crop, not yet farmed at the same scale as corn or soy but with the potential to help farmers expand their crop rotation and increase soil health. Chippewa Valley Bean has plans to expand or repurpose 30,000 acres of Wisconsin farmland for growing kidney beans. To do so, the company needs the technology to lower the risk for farmers, particularly in Wisconsin’s Central Sands Region where growing crops can be water-intensive and unpredictable.
Faculty and students at UW-Stout are using mathematics to help Chippewa Valley Bean and its growers reach their goal. Last summer, Professors Keith Wojciechowski and Tyler Skorczewski launched the Predicting Crop Per Drop in Sandy Soils project, with funding from the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin.
Their goal is to develop mathematical models for growing kidney beans — like those that exist for large-scale crops — that will help farmers increase their crop yield and decrease their water usage.
Anna Hansen and Audrey Williams, both UW-Stout sophomores majoring in applied mathematics and computer science, were hired to work with the professors last summer. The students conducted a literature review, coded algorithms in Python, conducted a parameter study, and collected and analyzed data. During the process, they worked with a team of agronomists and growers using mathematics, statistics and computer science to optimize water-use efficiency for growing a crop.
“My favorite part of conducting this research was learning that math research is not just sitting at a table doing math every day,” Hansen says. “Some days we were out in a kidney bean field talking to farmers with decades of experience farming kidney beans. Other days we were at a farming equipment conference called Farm Tech Days in Marshfield, Wisconsin. If we didn’t have experience in a specific area, we would go to professors in other departments at Stout. It really surprised me how much interdisciplinary work was involved!”
Williams says her favorite part was presenting their research at the Chippewa Valley Bean ownership and agronomy meeting and at a poster session for community members held at the Raw Deal in Menomonie, Wisc.
The summer collaboration worked so well that the professors applied for an additional grant to hire an intern to expand upon the work. Noah Royce, a double major in applied mathematics and applied physics, says he was initially hesitant to work on the project because he knew nothing about plants or agriculture, but he wanted to challenge himself. In joining the team, he added functionality to the model and used computational methods to run various watering scenarios that will help identify how to better predict the best frequency and amount of water need to help ensure optimal kidney bean growth.
“We’re looking at the life story of a kidney bean, and farmers want that story to be as boring as possible!” Royce said in describing the project at Research in the Rotunda, which took place at the state capitol in February.
Not only did the Crop per Drop Project provide valuable training to students, but it has led to collaborations among faculty who normally wouldn’t work together. For example, two computer science faculty members built sensors and drones to collect data via Wi-Fi. Wojciechowski and Skorczewski also connected with UW-River Falls faculty to test growing kidney bean plants in their greenhouse. In addition, Wojciechowski says, he can now bring the project into his classroom as a case study to show students how they can apply mathematics to agriculture.
And the partnership with Chippewa Valley Bean is just getting started. Wojciechowski will work for the company while on sabbatical, using applied mathematics to determine where beans are most at risk during growing and processing, develop efficiencies in their processing plant, analyze irrigation practices, and develop a planning plan with field maps so the company can collect data during harvesting.
“Getting the Freshwater Collaborative funding helped us see how this collaboration could work. This project allowed us to start the relationship,” he says. “They liked it and they want to do more. It’s become more than a corporate partnership.”
He plans to bring more students into the research this summer. A group of growers with Chippewa Valley Bean are letting them install temperature and moisture sensors in their fields so the research team can collect real-world data over the next two years. That data will help fine-tune the models. The resulting precision agricultural tools will lower the economic risk for growers who want to expand into kidney bean crops.
Charles Wachsmuth, vice president at Chippewa Valley Bean, says not only will the research help their growers be more efficient, but it will help the company as a whole address sustainability, which is important to their customers.
“The Crop Per Drop Project research is a game changer for Chippewa Valley Bean,” he says. “The ability to share new water management practices with our growing partners has long-term implications as we begin to look at a future with restrictions on normally abundant resources. Not only is this important for our growers, but partnering with UW-Stout on a true sustainability project is important to our customers as well.”
Flowing through the city of River Falls, the KinnickinnicRiver is a class I trout stream that also is home to two dams that have generated the city’s hydroelectric power for decades.
When the River Falls community decided to remove the dams and restore the riverway, the Kiap-TU-Wish chapter of Trout Unlimited and Inter-Fluve, a firm specializing in river restoration, developed an extensive 10-year monitoring plan for the project. The plan was provided to the City of River Falls and the Kinni Corridor Collaborative, a nonprofit that is leading fundraising efforts for the dam removal and river restoration work.
“When the city council decided to remove the dams in 2018, the resolution stated there should be a monitoring plan and ongoing monitoring to determine effectiveness,” says Kent Johnson of Trout Unlimited. “Monitoring the removal of the first dam would inform removal of the second dam.”
Due to budget constraints, the plan initially relied upon volunteers to conduct the monitoring. That created potential challenges in terms of reliability, consistency of the data collected and the ability to provide long-term monitoring.
That’s when an ongoing research partnership with UW-River Falls faculty and staff came into play. Why not use the monitoring project to provide undergraduate students with hands-on training while also fulfilling a community need?
Jill Coleman Wasik, associate professor at UW-River Falls, and Heather Davis, lab manager, requested a grant from the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin to create “The Dam Analysis and Monitoring (DAM) Crew,” a two-week student experience during which working professionals would train undergraduates in monitoring techniques.
“Trout Unlimited and the Kinni Corridor Collaborative wanted scientifically valid data. They couldn’t just rely on volunteers to come in any day and collect data,” Coleman Wasik says. “The funding from the Freshwater Collaborative came at a critical time for the monitoring plan and allowed our faculty and students to meet an identified need.”
Five UW-River Falls students and one from UW-Eau Claire were selected to work on the DAM Crew. Sean Morrison, a geomorphologist at Inter-Fluve and a graduate of UW-Eau Claire, trained them on several technical skills with a focus on data collection, which is an essential skill his company looks for when hiring. During the first week, the students often spent eight hours a day in waders, collecting samples.
Trout Unlimited has been monitoring the impacts of the city’s dams and storm water discharges since 1992, so Johnson shared historical data and demonstrated Trout Unlimited’s macroinvertebrate monitoring as well as a phone app (WiseH2O) the organization uses for water quality and temperature monitoring.
The students weren’t told the dams would be removed. Instead, Davis led them through a process of inquiry during which they were given basic information, made observations at the sites and analyzed data they collected. Students looked at water-quality parameters, temperature and stream ecology as well as legal and economic aspects of the project. They then presented their conclusions and recommendations to stakeholders.
“The students concluded the dams should be removed,” Davis says. “They talked about strategies for dealing with the dams after they’re drained and ways to make a community space that’s healthy for the river and the community.”
Those involved agree the DAM Crew project strengthened connections between UW-River Falls and the community. The university was able to exemplify the Wisconsin Idea by actively participating in a community project, and community partners had the opportunity to work with future water professionals. Students received hands-on training and networking opportunities — and saw how their research could solve real problems.
“It’s easy to do the science but not know if it matters,” says Zach Blackert, an environmental geography major who will graduate from UW-Eau Claire in May. “I got to really see how important the science is to the entire city and the entire watershed. And I feel a lot more prepared to enter the workforce.”
As part of the grant, Jordyn Curtis and Mckenna Kellogg were hired as interns to continue data collection during the spring semester. They also will be able to conduct research into soil cores, sedimentation and vegetative cover, which will further inform the river restoration and lay the groundwork for future student research.
“I’m very appreciative they gave us the opportunity to continue the study from the summer,” Kellogg says. “They trust us with this independent research and believe in us to be able to create a framework for future interns.”
Curtis adds: “We’re pioneers. It will be good for future students, and I think it’s good it’s here at UW-River Falls.”
The goal is for the DAM Crew to conduct river monitoring each summer and provide ongoing data and recommendations to the community partners.
“It’s very rare that we’re able to do anything beyond photo monitoring. Monitoring is always one of the first things to get cut from the budget,” Morrison says. “The Freshwater Collaborative funding did a great job of helping to train the next generation of water resource professionals, and it provided us with a dataset that will provide really unique insights.”
Phosphorus plays a critical role in the productivity of the farming industry, but over-reliance on this fertilizing nutrient has alarming consequences, such as toxic algal blooms and dead zones caused by phosphorus pollution in our waterways.
In February, the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin supported two events to engage partners in discussions around phosphorus and to help set a phosphorus research and policy agenda for the next decade.
On Feb. 7, 2023, the UW-Milwaukee Center for Water Policy, with support from the Freshwater Collaborative, the Palmer Foundation and the UW System Water Policy Network, co-hosted a statewide conference on Wisconsin’s phosphorus standards. The conference brought together more than 200 academic researchers, agricultural/conservation professionals/agencies, farmers/producers, policymakers and the public to discuss this important issue in our state.
Katy Schultz, a dairy farmer and President of the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin (PDPW), served as a moderator for one of the conference panels. She spoke about the promising opportunity for cross-sector collaboration and solution building.
“It cannot be ‘us versus them.’ We need the dairy farmers coming together with the crop farmers with the researchers with the policymakers,” she said. “We need to figure out how to create a solution that works for everyone, because if it doesn’t work for everyone, we all lose together.”
Chris Murphy, who served as a conservation specialist with the Rock County Land Conservation Department, was one panelist who provided a case study example of a local phosphorus management program. He said he believes that Wisconsin’s market-like, voluntary compliance options, Water Quality Trading and Adaptive Management, are huge solutions to the phosphorus pollution issue.
“These programs are not only doable, but are the best tools that I’ve had to work with in my 25 plus years,” he said.
New York Times best-selling author Dan Egan presented the keynote address in conversation with Center for Water Policy Director Melissa Scanlan about his book, The Devil’s Element: Phosphorus and a World Out of Balance. Egan discussed the “phosphorus paradox,” that describes the dual nature of phosphorus as a scarce resource necessary for growing food but also a nutrient used in excess that pollutes our surface waters.
“This is not some abstract environmental issue,” he said. “It’s coming down to preserving ourselves.” And yet, his takeaway message was “don’t despair.” According to Egan, the first step in solving the phosphorus paradox is raising public awareness, which is the step he is taking with his newest book.
In a continuing effort to help raise public awareness, on Feb. 28, 2023, Anya Janssen, water policy specialist at the Center for Water Policy and Sea Grant University of Wisconsin water science-policy fellow, presented key takeaways from the statewide conference during the online Great Lakes Freshwater Symposium: The Impact of Phosphorus Rules on Local Water.
More than 125 water researchers and students from Canadian and American universities, government agencies, nonprofits and concerned citizens registered for the symposium. Symposium attendees had the opportunity to participate in meaningful small group discussions around crafting a research and policy agenda for managing phosphorus in the next decade. This event was sponsored by the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin and the Great Lakes Higher Education Consortium, which is powered by the Council of the Great Lakes Region.
Thank you for registering for the Great Lakes Freshwater Symposium: The Impact of Phosphorus Rules on Local Water. Please fill out this brief survey about the event. Your feedback will be used to plan future symposiums.
Participants will have the opportunity to discuss how lessons learned in Wisconsin can be applied to other states/provinces on the Great Lakes. They will participate in breakout rooms to talk about how they can get involved in setting a phosphorus research and policy agenda for the next decade.
This is the first event in a series of quarterly water symposiums sponsored by the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin, Great Lakes Higher Education Consortium and Council of the Great Lakes Region. These symposiums seek to encourage and advance collaborations, share science across borders, encourage students in research and career opportunities and present research that is solving real-world problems.