Confluence, our Water Ways in art

The Blanchardville Public Library’s summer theme is “Library’s Rock”  which makes the art exhibit depicting the hydrologic cycle perfect. Ten community artists came together (confluence) to create a beautiful and educational exhibit illustrating elements of the hydrologic cycle — our “water ways.”

Land use and water quality

All land uses have an effect on water flow and water quality; some are positive, some are negative. In healthy ecosystems receiving little human disturbance, most rainfall soaks into the soil rather than running off the ground, stream flows are fairly steady, and water quality is good. In built-up areas with pavement and buildings or agricultural areas where land is bare rainfall causes runoff and poorer water quality. In fact, land use practices are the most important water quality factor.


Runoff is the water draining off the land; it is a natural and necessary part of the landscape. Water will follow the rules of gravity and move from a higher point to a lower point. If the water is filtered through native plants’ roots, it is important for recharging our groundwater. Negative runoff situations arise when the land becomes bare. When the water runs off hard surfaces and accumulates contaminants. In urban areas, these hard surfaces are pavement and concrete. In rural areas, solid surfaces are created by bare land. Other runoff occurs in cropped lands via drain tiles or land tilled too close to a stream. These negative situations are mitigated with good conservation farming practices, maintaining native wetlands, planting native plants along streams, and ensuring stormwater is filtered before it enters our waterways.


Karst is a topography characterized by carbonate rock (limestone, dolomite, gypsum) that easily dissolves in rainwater forming cracks, sink holes and even large cave systems. Water quickly moves through the cracks in karst and enters the groundwater. These cracks act as direct conduits for pollutants to enter our groundwater, wells, springs, and streams. There are many regions in the world that have karst geology, southwestern Wisconsin is one of them so are areas of Mexico, Germany, and Florida to name a few.

Lafayette County is sensitive to water pollutants because of our karst landscape. Whenever material above the aquifer is permeable, pollutants can readily sink into groundwater supplies and our drinking water supplies. Good conservation practices can ease the statistic that croplands are responsible for 96% of nitrates leached into groundwater.

Karst landscape is particularly easy to see in the winter. Where the road cuts through the earth you can see the beautiful icicles! This is the water seeping through the rocks, then freezing.


Groundwater is the water found underground in the cracks and spaces in soil, sand, and rock. It is stored in and moves slowly through geologic formations called aquifers. Groundwater is a necessary resource; it supplies drinking water for 51% of the total U.S. population and 99% of the rural population.

Groundwater is also a limited resource. It’s difficult to think this is possible when we currently average 34.5” every year, but only about 25% of all rainfall in the U.S. becomes groundwater. In the past that average has fluctuated from 21-44”annually.

Agriculture is the largest consumer of freshwater resources. In the United States 64% of groundwater is drawn down to irrigate crops.

Well, Bethany Storm, Mixed media

Well Depth and Construction

The safety of the water in your home is dependent upon proper well location and construction.  The well casing needs to extend into a confined aquifer, which must be quite deep in our karst landscape. As you can see from these diagrams, if the casing doesn’t extend deep enough, your water could be receiving contaminants from one half to one mile away from your home. The well should be located so rainwater flows away from it. Rainwater can pick up harmful bacteria and chemicals on the land’s surface.

Surface Water

Surface water is freshwater you see on the top or surface of the landscape. It includes rivers, streams, creeks, lakes, and reservoirs; these are vitally important to our everyday life. The amount and location of surface water changes, varying in response to climate and human activities.

Surface water represents only about 3% of all water on Earth. Freshwater lakes account for a mere 0.29% of the Earth’s freshwater. Lake Baikal in Asia has 20% of all fresh surface water; another 20% is stored in the Great Lakes.  What a precious resource we have near us!!

Runoff and erosion have negative effects for surface water and eventually our groundwater. Excess nitrogen and phosphorus from runoff causes the algal blooms on our lakes, subsequent deaths of animals, and a loss of tourism dollars. Excess nitrogen in the streams where livestock drink can cause disease. Pesticides are dangerous too and are found in surface water 97% of the time near agricultural areas and 61% of the time in other landscapes.

Pecatonica, Fish
Something’s Fishy: Underwater swimmers of the Pecatonica, Nana Showalter, Steel sculpture

Fish of Lafayette County

Smallmouth bass and trout fishing are popular in our warm waterways. Our lakes support panfish such as bluegill and crappie along with the occasional northern pike. Fishing for brown trout is popular and the Lafayette County area has several restored coldwater streams.

Twilight on the Pecatonica, Roberta Barham, Wool

The word Pecatonica is an anglicization of two Algonquian language words: Bekaa (or Pekaa in some dialects), which means “slow”, and niba, which means “water”, forming the conjunction Bekaaniba or “Slow Water”.

The Pecatonica begins in Iowa County, runs through Lafayette County into Illinois where is joins the Rock River about 15 miles north of Rockford, IL.

It’s final destination is the Gulf of Mexico via the Mighty Mississippi River.

Hydrologic Cycle

Hydrologic Cycle
Hydrologic Cycle, Elsie Berget, Paper

The hydrologic cycle is the way water moves through our world. Water falls to the ground in the form of precipitation which either evaporates into the atmosphere, soaks into the ground, or runs off into surface waters like lakes, rivers and oceans. The water that infiltrates into the ground is either picked up by plants and organisms that transpire it into the air or it becomes groundwater. Groundwater is stored in an aquifer. Some water spends hundreds of years beneath the surface in deep aquifers; other groundwater is drawn back to the surface through manmade wells. Shallow aquifers feed into our surface water through seeps or springs in the ground. All the water that evaporates enters the atmosphere, becomes clouds and the cycle continues.

The main elements of the hydrologic cycle are:

  1. Evaporation
  2. Precipitation
  3. Transpiration
  4. Runoff
  5. Infiltration

hydrologic cycle
The hydrologic cycle — as with all things, it must work together to be effective!


Precipitation is water released from clouds. It is visible to us in the form of rain, freezing rain, sleet, snow, or hail and is the primary method for water in the air to be delivered to earth. Most precipitation falls as rain. In our area, we expect an average of 34.5” of rainfall each year. Clouds are small droplets of water too small to fall to the ground. They create a vapor that appears as white fluffy objects in the sky. How many types of clouds can you name?


Evaporation is the process by which water changes from a liquid to a gas or vapor. Studies have shown the oceans, seas, lakes, and rivers provide nearly 90% of the moisture in the atmosphere via evaporation, with the remaining 10 percent being contributed by plant transpiration. Once evaporated, a water molecule spends about 10 days in the air.


Transpiration is how we describe plants’ breathing. Plants’ roots draw water and nutrients up into the stems and leaves; some of this water is returned to the air by transpiration. Transpiration rates vary widely depending on weather conditions. During dry periods, transpiration can contribute to the loss of moisture in the upper soil zone, which can have an effect on food-crop fields.

An acre of corn gives off about 3,000-4,000 gallons of water each day, and a large oak tree can transpire 40,000 gallons per year. Keeping the numerous oak savannas in Lafayette County healthy would be very good for us!!


A watershed is the land where all the water drains off of it before entering into a particular water body. Watersheds can vary in size and are determined by topography (the peaks and valleys). In southwestern Wisconsin, we are located in the Upper Mississippi watershed. Everything we do on our land here travels to the Mississippi River and eventually reaches the Gulf of Mexico either from overland flow or through underground channels. Major watersheds like the Upper Mississippi are made up of many little watersheds. In fact each creek or pond has its own defined watershed.

What watershed do you live in?

The watersheds of Lafayette County

Flow, Chip Hankley, Digital image on paper.

This image represents 30 years of flow data from the USGS Pecatonica River monitoring station between Blanchardville and Argyle. The station collects a reading every hour. This image was derived from almost 800,000 individual readings. The patterns in the image reflect the annual cycles of water in the river: spring melt, winter ice, and summer lows.

Topography 1: Topography refers to a data set that represents the land surface elevation. This is a graphic representation of the topography between Blanchardville and Argyle that uses a continuous grid of data. Each “cell” in the grid contains a ground elevation and has a ground dimension of 5 feet by 5 feet. The area shown is approximately 12.5 square miles, and is composed of over 174 million “cells.” The graphic shows the dendritic pattern of drainage and ridge tops that is characteristic of our watershed.

Topography 2: Topography refers to a data set that represents the land surface elevation. This is a graphic representation of the topography between Blanchardville and Argyle that uses lines to represent continuous elevation (or contours). Topographic contour maps are the cartographic means that most people are familiar with.

Topography 3, Chip Hankley, Digital image on paper

Topography 3: This image uses a technique called hillshading to show changes in terrain. In this image, hillshading is combined with color to highlight relative changes in elevation. This is a detail of a portion of the river valley between Blanchardville and Argyle. The combination of the two techniques clearly shows the steep cliffs and the multiple floodplain terraces.

Freshwater ecosystem

Freshwater ecosystems – such as wetlands, lakes and ponds, rivers, streams, and springs – are a critical part of the global water cycle. The water in these ecosystems is our surface waters; the ones our watershed catches and directs to our drinking water source.

Freshwater is also imperative to the survival of humans. We cannot stay alive without fresh water, yet we are facing a number of threats to our supply: 1) runoff from agricultural and urban areas, 2) draining of wetlands for agricultural uses and development, 3) overexploitation (i.e. high capacity wells) and pollution, and 4) invasion of exotic species.

All freshwater ultimately depends on the continued healthy functioning of organisms interacting in the aquatic environment. These organisms include fish, aquatic insects, amphibians, turtles, water fowl, and mammals such as otters and beavers. Freshwater is home to 40% of the world’s fish species. At present, more than 20% of these fish species are extinct or imperiled.

Fish living in our creeks and streams need clean, fresh water to survive. Lafayette County is home to one of the best smallmouth bass fishing places in the U.S. Yellowstone Lake is also a source of pride and brings in tourism.

Freshwater ecosystem
Healthy Freshwater Environment, Elsie Berget, Fabric and Paper

Insects are great indicators of safe, clean water because they are not highly mobile; they reside in the water for long periods of time. Insects offer a method of testing water less often and more accurately. Many of them are not tolerant of pollution and will die off when the waters become contaminated.

Freshwater ecosystem
Healthy Freshwater Environment, Elsie Berget, Fabric and Paper

Ducks and waterfowl are indicators of the environment. If they’re in trouble, we’ll soon be in trouble. They rely on wetland areas for food and nesting. The primary threat to waterfowl is the loss of wetland quality and function by agricultural activities that aren’t complying with conservation practices.

Freshwater ecosystem
Healthy Freshwater Environment, Elsie Berget, Fabric and Paper

There are three basic types of freshwater ecosystems:

  • Lentic: slow moving water, including pools, ponds, and lakes.
  • Lotic: faster moving water, for example streams and rivers.
  • Wetlands: areas where the soil is saturated or inundated for at least part of the time.

What types of freshwater ecosystems do you have near where you live?

Streambank Erosion

Cutting the Banks, Jim Hess, Drone photography
As topsoil erodes from higher elevation it collects along the streambanks which funnels water flow to continue cutting into and eroding the banks.

Where water is not slowed down it erodes the land, sending the topsoil to the streams where it builds up our stream bank sides or silts in our lakes. Our hilly Driftless Area landscape is conducive to erosion. Losing soil and nutrients to streams isn’t good for the farmers or the environment. Soil is precious and losing it hurts a farm’s productivity.

Feathered for Ebb and Flo, Marci Hess, photography
When streambanks are restored to their healthy and historical nature water can move in and out without erosion.

Streambanks historically were feathered out to allow water to ebb and flow. The steep-sided banks we often see in our streams are the topsoil from the ridge tops and hillsides that drained to the valley streams and built up along the edges. Once the streambanks are built up with this excess topsoil, water cannot gently flow but rather is blasted through the channels. This creates more and more erosion. With every turn of the stream the water grooves out more and more soil; eventually the hollowed out bank crumbles. This topsoil becomes nutrient-laden sediment, clogging our streams and lakes, and de-oxygenating the water. Insects and fish cannot thrive and the ecosystem begins to fail.

Wetlands and infiltration

The negative effects of runoff and erosion are prevented by the deep roots of native plants. Wetlands adjacent to streams are important and positive for healthy, safe, and clean water. The root systems of native plants reach deep into the soil, many of them stretching 12-20 feet downward. Nonnative plants do not have long roots. The root length allows more microbes to exist in the soil; these microbes are responsible for absorbing the additional nutrients from crops and livestock waste and pesticide runoff from urban areas.

Nonnative plants do not have the same nutrient-absorbing abilities as our natives. Their root structure is short; this means they are dependent on water supplied by precipitation. Native roots extend far into the soil where they can extract water in times of drought. This increases their importance as they can continue to filter surface water when other plants have died. This filtration service is the most significant method for purifying our drinking water.


Native plant root systems
Roots: Natural water filters, Sarah Aslakson, Mixed media

Native plant root systems are extensive. They prevent erosion, filter the surface water, and feed the microbes, which provide fertility. Dissolved nutrients, such as nitrogen or phosphorus, chemically bond with soil. Instead of eroding into our streams and groundwater, these nutrients are available to feed the plants.

prairie roots
Prairie plants have incredible root systems with numerous microbes that filter our additional nutrients polluting our streams and lakes.
Planting a buffer of native plants along waterways and wet areas is good for all our health!

Soil Microbes

When we talk about healthy soil, we are generally referring to the microbes and invertebrates living within it. These critters are what remove toxins and excess nutrients so they don’t erode into our waterways. Microbes are most prevalent in soil with native plants.

Forested Surface Water

Surface water
Nature’s Blessing, Susan Meier, Watercolor

In the U.S., about 180 million people in over 68,000 communities rely on these forested lands to capture and filter their drinking water.

Trees are ideal in an urban setting for “treating” stormwater runoff.


Sarah Aslakson – Sarah’s formal education is in collage and her interest in art lies with the natural world.

Roberta Barham – Roberta, a lifelong Wisconsinite is a fiber artist, using mainly wool in various formats. She has been cleaning, carding, spinning and knitting with wool for 35 years.

Elsie Berget – Elsie lives in Lafayette County. She has a BFA and works in various media including paint, fabric, and paper

Heidi Hankley – Heidi has always been fascinated by nature and she is grateful for its unending supply of inspiration.

Chip Hankley – Chip is kind of a nerd. He likes numbers and data. He also likes nature, patterns and color. He turns large data sets into pictures, and likes to figure out ways to make the pictures tell stories about the data.

Jim Hess – Jim is retired and stays busy volunteering with conservation groups and restoring his own land. He purchased the drone to help plan projects and provide before and after pictures.

Marci Hess – Marci loves highlighting the natural world through photography. Her avocation is restoring ecosystems to provide habitat.

Susan Meier – Susan has been painting with watercolor for about 10 years. I love many arts/crafts especially quilting/sewing and painting.

Nana Showalter – Nana is a local artist and metal sculptor, specializing in hot forged and fabricated steel sculpture. She works in the original Postville Blacksmith Shop and teaches classes in basic blacksmithing.

Bethany Storm – Bethany Storm spent her tenure working in the natural resources. In pseudo retirement, she owns and operates a nonprofit, sustainable homestead farm in Postville.

Soil Testing and Restoration

This is a guest blog written by Beau Larkin and Ylva Lekberg. Jim and I were excited they chose our property as one of their research sites.

Often prairie restoration is to change agricultural fields into native prairie habitat. We can evaluate progress by comparing the restored plant community to a remnant prairie. It is relatively easy to measure this with plant communities, but this does not reveal what has happened belowground. We want to know if soil microbes become more similar to remnant prairie after restoration. We collected soil from cornfields and remnant prairie to characterize the microbial communities in these habitats. These represent endpoints along a gradient from degraded to desirable habitat. Then we sampled soil from restored prairies that differ in the amount of time since restoration began. If soil microbes in restored prairies become more similar to those in remnant prairie over time, then older restoration sites should be more like remnant prairies. On the other hand, if soil microbes remain similar to those in cornfields regardless of time since restoration, then restoration is only partly successful and the stability and function of these communities may be compromised.

Soil testing, MPG Ranch
Ylva pulling a soil core from Sunset Prairie.

Soil testing, MPG Ranch
The soil core being transferred to a paper envelope.

If soil microbial communities do not shift to become more like those in remnant prairie, what are the consequences for restoration? Many restoration managers have noticed that grasses increase after treatment at the expense of forbs. Many variables could cause this to happen. Seed mixes that favor grasses, and frequent burning since restoration could cause this phenomenon. Some grass species are more competitive than others, and post-restoration overseeding also affects the resultant plant community. Amid the “noise” restoration and management history, there may be another explanation for the enhanced competitive nature of grasses in restored prairie.  Because corn is more closely related to common prairie grasses than it is to forbs, is it possible that the soil community will favor these grasses. Working with Mike Healy from Adaptive Restoration, we collected plant cover data along with our soil samples to investigate how changes in plant communities correlate with soil microbial communities. In older restored fields that contain many forbs, we should find that the soil communities resemble those in remnant prairies. In restored prairies that reverted to high grass cover, we may find that the soil communities remained “stuck” in a condition similar to a cornfield. This situation might suggest that restoration projects should contain some mechanism to inoculate soil with microbes found in remnant prairie. We will attempt to disentangle the management histories and discover whether such a microbial signal exists. As results from this project come in, we will share what we learn with you.

Plant surveying of the Deer Camp Prairie, a 2-year-old planting.
Plant surveying of the Deer Camp Prairie, a 2-year-old planting.

Beau Larkin and Ylva Lekberg are both staff at MPG Ranch, which promotes conservation through restoration, research, education and information sharing. Beau is also an adjunct professor at University of Montana in the Department of Ecosystem and Conservation Sciences (DECS).