Lafayette County Rivers, Streams, and Watersheds
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Lafayette County has some great water features. Not only for the county, but some rank excellent in relation to the whole United States!! This according to Bradd Sims, the Lafayette County Fishery Biologist for the Wisconsin DNR, who presented the following information to the Lafayette County Conservation Committee.

The two most important watersheds in Lafayette County are the Fever River and the Yellowstone River.

Fever River

The Fever River (AKA Galena River) is of great importance, not only to our state but to the United States!! “It’s one of the best “small stream” or “wadable stream” smallmouth bass fisheries in the United States. There are not too many regions that have this good of small stream fisheries,” Sims reported. He added, “the Galena River watershed also includes the Shullsburg Branch which is another good smallmouth bass stream.” This coupled with the miles of public easement along this river bring in outside resources to the region and the state. Sadly, it is showing signs of nutrient loading. Nutrient loading is a term used when excessive amounts of phosphorus enter an ecosystem. This loading can be discovered in a couple of ways.  One is with monitoring by a citizen science team, known as Water Action Volunteers (WAV) and another is by noticing algal buildup covering rocks or aggregating at the edges. In the Fever River, the resulting blanket of algae from the nutrient loading is very detrimental to the smallmouth bass population. They require a clean rocky bottom for spawning and foraging.

So what causes this nutrient loading? In The Driftless Area it comes from surface soil runoff from farm fields, pastures and feedlots or faulty septic systems and manure containment systems. The slow day-by-day chronic seepage of outdated and defective manure containment systems is far worse for our waterways than the periodic manure spills because spills will eventually flush through the system. According to the Wisconsin DNR, there are 59 tributaries to the Fever River. Of those, 53% are unknown and untested, 35% are classified as poor or suspected of degradation. Only 12% are fair or good and none, yes none, are considered excellent.

Yellowstone River

The Yellowstone River watershed is the second most important watershed in our county. It also is in need of some attention. The Yellowstone River has some smallmouth bass populations but no public easements above the Yellowstone Lake dam. While some landowners do not deny access, obtaining these easements in perpetuity is important for continued economic viability.

Yellowstone Lake (the largest in The Driftless Area) is a popular recreational lake, not only for anglers but campers, swimmers, hikers, and birdwatchers. There is plenty of public access to this lake, which is home to largemouth and smallmouth bass, walleye, muskie, crappie, and catfish. Yellowstone Lake is a favorite summer spot for locals and tourists, making it a great economic resource to Lafayette County. Like all natural resources, this lake needs to be maintained and managed. At present, the lake needs to have the rough fish removed. Rough fish, such as common and bigmouth buffalo, refers to fish species that are not commonly eaten or are not sought after by anglers for sporting purposes. They also outcompete desired fish for food sources.

Some of the maintenance needed is the occasional dredging. It’s past time for that at Yellowstone Lake. It was built in the 1950s and dredged once in the 1960s. Since then the lake has built up 18-76” of “modern” sediment, often referred to as muck, which is mostly found in the upper areas of the lake. This muck is from soil runoff and silt and the buildup affects the water quality, which affects sporting and recreational activities. The soil runoff can be loaded with nutrients as well, which causes algal blooms making the lake unsafe to use.

The Yellowstone River watershed has 24 tributaries. Of these 58% are unknown and untested, 16% are poor and suspected, 16% are fair and good, and 10% or 2 tributaries are considered excellent. It gets a slightly better scorecard than the Fever River. 

Instilling conservation-minded land use practices in watersheds within The Driftless Area are imperative; not only for our streams and lakes, which provide economic resources to our communities, but for the quality of our groundwater, which we drink and depend on to maintain land values. Streams with buffer strips decrease the nutrient loads. If those buffer strips are native plants, they serve as a high-quality filtering system because the native plants have very deep roots, sometimes extending 15-20’ into the ground. These native plants do double duty by providing habitat and food to insects, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals.


small mouth bass

The Driftless Area contains 25% of the state’s smallmouth bass habitat and this includes streams found in Lafayette County. There are few areas left in the United States with these small streams which support fishable populations of smallmouth bass. Lafayette County is unique because it has cold and warm streams and natural smallmouth bass fisheries and small trout streams. 

All watershed areas have seen a loss of streams over the last 10 years. Our coldwater streams are warming because there is less spring flow, more sediment loading, and more nutrient loading due to land use changes. There is little state budget for warm water stream improvement. The coldwater streams have funding because of the trout stamp. This stamp is now necessary for anglers 18-64 years old who wish to fish in designated trout water or possess trout. Funds raised through the sale of trout and salmon stamps go into an account that can be used only for trout stream and lake habitat development, restoration, maintenance, identifying easements, or for rearing and stocking trout and salmon. Wisconsin should consider establishing a smallmouth bass stamp.

Some of our modern and corporate practices are damaging the health of our streams, lakes, and groundwater. These practices include the elimination of contour and conservation strips, plowing up to the edge of rivers and streams, and plowing up pastureland for operations keeping their cattle inside exclusively.

A Couple Examples of Negative Ag Practices

Negative ag practices near a stream

Lafayette County has five streams that do not support fish any longer due to degraded water quality. Fortunately, they have not been deemed lost. When the DNR classifies a stream as “lost” it means it is so irreparably damaged it’s not worth the resources to clean them. The Apple Branch, Whiteside Creek, and Wolf Creek do not support fishable populations of brown trout any longer and Wood Branch and Otter Creek no longer support smallmouth bass. If the water quality along these streams improved, they could be reclassified. In general, much of our stream degradation is due to sediment and phosphorus loading. To improve the water quality, current agricultural practices in this watershed would need to incorporate conservation measures to prevent runoff. 

Stream losses do not need to continue.

There’s a perception that conservation practices are time consuming or cut into productivity, but reality is quite the opposite. Conservation practices often increase productivity and as an inducement to use them, there are many cost share programs available.

Success begins with educating everyone living within these watersheds and getting landowners involved. The Dept of Ag (DATCP) has begun to implement grants targeting watershed programs initiated by producers. For info about this program.


The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) offers financial assistance and technical assistance for improving water quality.  The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is the primary program that provides funding to install conservation practices such as managed grazing plans, filter strips, cover crops, nutrient management, contour strips, and streambank stabilization (riprap) just to name a few.

Lafayette County has also been awarded additional dollars through the RCPP (Regional Conservation Partnership Program) that will likely be available for 2018.  This will be an opportunity to get more landowner projects funded than ever before.  If you have been putting off doing a project or would like someone to do a walkover of your property, now is a great time.  All NRCS programs are voluntary and producer information is private and not shared with other agencies.

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