Lowery Creek Watershed: An Experiment in Natural Restoration

By Denise Thornton

About five years ago a group of neighbors met around a table at the General Store in Spring Green to share their love of nature in the Lowery Creek Watershed, a relatively undisturbed area with a strong sense of history, culture, innovative agriculture and rugged natural beauty. 

Denise Thornton

Looking for guidance, the grassroots group reached out to the Driftless Area Land Conservancy (DALC) to help coordinate their efforts.

“Covering 8,400 acres, it’s the valley you see from Taliesin that runs south to Far Look Road a few miles north of Governor Dodge State Park,” says Barb Barzen, DALC’s point person for what has become the Lowery Creek Watershed Initiative.  

Barzen began by facilitating a year of conversations that coalesced into an evolving vision for the future and a clear plan for how to make it come to life. 

A watershed is an area of land that channels rainfall and snowmelt into a creek, stream or river. “A stream does not exist in a vacuum,” says Katie Abbott, Iowa County conservationist. “It is impacted by the land next to it and the uplands around it. Everything in a watershed is tied together by the geography of the stream.”

Richard Cates, whose father started the family farm near Spring Green in 1967, enjoys a nearly 3/4-mile stretch of Lowery Creek running through his pastureland. “We have almost 20 [cattle] crossings along our stretch of the creek. It has become part of our daily life protecting this trout stream. We look at it every day. We listen to it. When it floods, we suffer its anger.”

DALC enlisted an environmental studies class in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies to spend a summer assessing the attributes of the watershed including water quality, stream quality and land use issues to create a snapshot of the health of the watershed. Their findings added to the sense of excitement and immediacy about the effort to preserve and enhance Lowery Creek Watershed.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources agrees. 

Trout are a kind of canary in the coal mine for stream quality. Trout are predatory and need streams that can support the insects they feed on. Insects need a rocky, gravelly stream bottom. A stream full of sediment washing off collapsing banks can smother both insects and trout eggs. 

Trout also need cool water. In the Driftless, most streams are fed by springs that keep them cold, and Lowery Creek is host to a very valuable population of native brook trout.

Over the years, the DNR has stocked Wisconsin streams with both native and domestic trout. The domestic trout come from various sources out east, but lately the DNR has been searching the Driftless Area for native trout populations, identified by collecting fin clippings that are analyzed in Stevens Point.

“We think the native fish will do better here in the long run,” explains DNR Fisheries Biologist Justin Haglund. The DNR values the Lowery Creek trout population so much that they use them to stock populations in other Driftless streams.

Richard Cates, whose father started the family farm in 1967, enjoys a nearly 3/4-mile stretch of Lowery Creek running through his pastureland. “When we came to the realization that Lowery Creek is one of several streams in the Driftless Area that still harbors native brook trout, we knew we had a true treasure here, and that makes protecting this stream even more significant,” says Cates.

Brook trout are beautiful fish. The DNR comes out periodically to stun some of them, let them swim in a metal cage with flowing water, and collect their spawn before releasing them. The spawn is taken back to the fish hatchery in Fitchburg. At 2 years old, the fingerlings are close to 6 inches long, and are released into streams around the state.

Daniel Marquardt and his wife, Linda, retired to the Lowery Creek area, looking to raise grass-fed cattle. They found a short, docile breed called Red Devon brought to the United States in 1620. The pilgrims used them for hauling, as well as for their milk and beef. After finding the perfect breed, the Marquardts found the perfect land for them along Lowery Creek. 

When they bought the land, the slopes above the creek were being farmed in corn and beans and the soil was left plowed and exposed much of the year. “There was a lot of erosion loaded with excess nutrients added to produce crops that was running into the creek,” says Marquardt. “Now it is permanent pasture with deep roots. Now, when it rains, the soil acts like a huge sponge, and what runoff does filter down to the creek is much cleaner.”

The water quality of Lowery Creek is monitored at five sites by the Water Action Volunteers Stream Monitoring Network. A hands-on citizen science effort coordinated by the DNR, WAV keeps track of the quality of over 650 streams throughout the state.

Lowery Creek is sampled for a variety of characteristics including dissolved oxygen, temperature, transparency, flow, habitat, phosphorus, specific conductance, chloride, E. coli and an array of macro-invertebrates present. Vigilant monitoring for several key aquatic invasive species is a major part of the program.

Mike Degen, natural landscape coordinator with Taliesin Preservation Inc., sees great value in the Lowery Creek Watershed Initiative. Degen is also chair of the Wyoming Township Plan Commission. 

Degen and Abbot are working with the Southwest Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission to develop an online interactive map of the watershed with 22 layers of information. This map will provide solid understanding of what is happening in the watershed and provide a model for other area watersheds.

The DNR will do a one-year thorough monitoring of the Lowery Creek watershed that will complement the sampling. The DNR team, led by aquatic biologist Kim Kuber, will sample the stream at numerous sites, do hourly temperature testing year-round, and assess the brook and brown trout populations in Lowery Creek. Results should be available next winter.

“We have private owners within the watershed doing natural restoration work, which contributes to the fact that we have a self-sustaining native trout population. We have unique habitat types and unique creatures that should be nurtured. To succeed with so many owners along the creek takes an awareness campaign, and that is one of the ways that DALC contributes,” says Degen.

“One thing we are focusing on is water quality,” he continues. “Is our water quality improving or getting poorer? Smaller watersheds flow into Lowery Creek, which flows into the Wisconsin River. That’s why we chose the watershed as our defining area. Land management and everything else that we do affects our watersheds and water quality.”

Barzen coordinates the many efforts of the various stakeholders including small farmers. “There is a lot going on,” she says. In 2018 DALC began offering field trips called Evenings Afield to expand awareness. “One evening a month we get together and invite everyone in the community to spend a few hours learning about a particular topic, but just as important is the time spent socializing and community building.” Topics for this summer’s programs include Monitoring Water Quality in Lowery Creek and Controlling Invasive Plants. (See the sidebar for the 2020 schedule.)

Evenings Afield and other Lowery Creek Watershed Initiative activities can be found on DALC’s re-designed website. Visit the project at https://www.driftlessconservancy.org/lowery-creek-watershed.

Last year the watershed partnership was awarded $10,000 from the DNR, which is being used to expand water monitoring, to create an ambitious map of land use and ecological cover, to hold a stream bank management workshop for the 44 landowners who have Lowery Creek running through their properties, and for outreach to share what is being learned with other watersheds in the Driftless.

“The most exciting part is the community building that has started,” says Barzen. “Lots of great conversations between neighbors and landowners and hopefully some new awareness happening for people who have an interest in doing restoration but don’t know how to begin.” A number of watershed partners are eager to share what they have learned.

“We had to figure out how to take care of this creek,” says Cates. “We learned to never let animals remain in an area for more than a day, to fence sensitive areas, and to control where animals cross the stream.” 

Cattle like to cross where there is a nice, hard bottom, and Cates added crushed-rock breaker run so they could cross without causing erosion. “We have almost 20 of those crossings along our stretch of the creek. It has become part of our daily life protecting this trout stream. We look at it every day. We listen to it. When it floods, we suffer its anger.”

Lowery Creek was named for Goodwin Lowery, an early settler who came here from New York in 1870, settling on 840 acres of the watershed. He was elected to the State Assembly and is buried beside Unity Chapel in the Town of Wyoming. But for Cates and others who have become attuned to the watershed, the history of the stream stretches much further back.

“When you stand along the creek and listen to the rushing sound as it flows past you, swirling and swishing along the oxbows, you realize that this was the sound of the land that the first indigenous people heard when they arrived here 12,000 years ago,” says Cates.

“The mooing of cows has replaced the bellowing of bison. We do hear some mowing machines in the summer and occasional tractors in the winter, but there are really no other sounds here. This is not an industrial farm. We just have the cows eating and water flowing.  For us it’s a spiritual place.”

Partnering with DALC, the DNR and Taliesin, landowners in the Lowery Creek Watershed Initiative intend to make a difference in the quality of their unique and fragile ecosystem. And they hope that more area landowners will follow their example to come together to improve the quality of other Driftless Area watersheds.

Denise Thornton is an environmental journalist covering the Driftless Area. For more of her writing, see digginginthedriftless.com.