© 2023 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Oconomowoc Boasts Wisconsin's First Watershed Protection Program

John Koepke
John Koepke's farm is one of the first to join in the watershed protection program.

Oconomowoc sits about 30 miles west of Milwaukee and falls within a lake and stream-rich 8300-acre watershed .  It falls within the massive Rock River basin.

Stretches of the system are subject to an abundance of phosphorus, too much of it, which leads to algal bloom and loss of aquatic life.

People in Oconomowoc is attempting to do its part to reduce phosphorus. A collection 0f partners - from conservationists to lake associations – have teamed up to create the Oconomowoc Watershed Protection Program.

Credit Susan Bence
Some of the watershed protection program leaders: farmer Bill Ingersoll, program director Tom Steinbach, Susan Buchanan with Talls Pines Conservancy, farmer John Koepke, watershed ag coordinator Darrell Smith & Oconomowoc administrator Sarah Kitsembel.

One driving force behind it is Tom Steinbach. He manages the City of Oconomowoc’s wastewater treatment facility and is leading the watershed project.

It's built around a technique called adaptive management.

Steinbach says rather than simply adding infrastructure in his wastewater treatment plant to drive down phosphorus levels, the program looks for solutions throughout the entire watershed.

“If you look at the land use within the watershed, we have just under half of that that’s ag related,” Steinbach says.

So working with farmers makes sense. 

“Through buffer strips, grass waterways, contour farming, helping farmers with cover crop programs. There’s a wide gamut of practices,” Steinbach says.

John Koepke runs a multi-generational dairy farm. “The majority of our farm is not in the watershed, but the original that Koepke homestead is in the watershed and is also closer to the City of Oconomowoc. It’s where my great-great grandfather settled in 1875. And we worked with Tall Pines* to protect the farm, so it will forever be a farm and in the watershed,” Koepke says.

Tall Pines Conservancy is a land trust and another partner in the watershed protection program.

Koepke says he’s committed to farming with as little negative impact as possible.

“(My farm) has some steep slopes and that type of thing and so it has to be managed well to prevent soil erosion and nutrient loss and that sort of thing,” Koepke.

He and a small group of farmers created Farmers for Lake Country. Together they are promoting best practices around the watershed.

Credit Ingersoll Farms
August 2016 Ingersoll wrote - The seeds have been in the ground for only 15 days and LOOK at the growth! Our farmer - led group called Farmers for Lake Country are taking steps to learn best practices to protect our waterways. These are cover crops planted to reduce runoff during winter snow melting and spring rains.

Bill Ingersoll grows corn lower in the watershed in the Town of Concord. He’s also town chair.

NOTE:  In the original story, we said Bob, rather than Bill Ingersoll.

Ingersoll agreed to bring some local farmers together to learn about the watershed protection program.

“Everybody’s reluctant to do anything with the government, sometimes farmers have been turned off by any kind of bureaucracy and don’t want to get involved,” Ingersoll says.

Ingersoll agreed to try out program on his land and says he's now hooked.

“If we put this buffer strip along the outside edges of our field, we’re going to stop potentially some of the run off into the Oconomowoc River. We’re become aware of the fact that, hey,  let’s not just worry about making that extra dollar. Let’s make sure that we have quality land and we’re helping the future generations,” Ingersoll adds, “I’m excited about it.”

A few of Ingersoll’s neighbors have signed on too.

Tom Steinbach says while positive impacts are already being felt within the watershed, it’s a complicated system.

“There are 17 lakes. There’s a lot of recreational activity going on. And I can’t emphasize enough how working upstream of the city is going to be a long term benefit to city operations, because we’re really a lake community. Our downtown is right next to Fowler Lake and Lac La Belle,” Steinbach says.

He says safeguarding the water quality of the lakes for the future is a big deal.

“And the only way to protect those lakes is to work upstream,” Steinbach adds, “It’s a big picture program.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.<br/>