After nearly 20 years of working to improve waterways, restore riparian and prairie habitat and educate the public in southwestern Dane County, a local organization has taken a big step to extend its reach.

The Upper Sugar River Watershed Association, which got its start as a government initiative in the late 1990s before becoming an independent nonprofit in 2000, is planning to use two new grants to expand its existing monitoring and control of invasive species into a nine-county area throughout the Driftless Area of Southwest Wisconsin.

Wade Moder, who has served as USRWA’s executive director since 2014, said the grants, awarded in May after another organization using them folded, have made “a huge shift” in the organization as it went from a staff of one to three and nearly doubled its budget.

“Two of them were invasive species related grants that we felt would be a reach for us but something we could really handle and help us expand our wings as an organization,” Moder explains in a Facebook video announcing the grants. “Invasive species don’t really know any boundaries, and I think if we’re managing invasive species 100 miles away, 50 miles away – it doesn’t matter what it is – that’s going to indirectly benefit our watershed, as well, so we thought it was a match.”

Totaling $150,000, the grants extend into spring 2021, allowing the USRWA to hire two new employees three years after Moder’s position went full time.

In July, USRWA hired Matt Wallrath as a full-time invasive species coordinator to manage the work, which will take place in the Driftless Area throughout Dane, Green, Iowa, Grant, Sauk, LaFayette, Richland, Crawford and Vernon counties. That month, USRWA also hired Hannah Bunting as a part-time membership and communications assistant.

These new positions and grants are enabling USRWA to engage with more partners and volunteers to benefit the watershed’s land, water and people, matching its vision statement. At the same time, the Mount Horeb-based nonprofit has also increased its membership and plans to launch an educational program in 2020 through another grant it was awarded this fall.

“This is good growth for us, and it’s really all possible because our membership, people who have supported us all these years, our board of directors that has checked all our boxes and making sure we’re doing all the proper things here,” Moder said. “It’s a pretty exciting time for us right now.”

Cleaning up the waterways

“Everyone lives in a watershed.”

It’s a tagline USRWA uses on its promotional signs to help people think about the importance of protecting the land and water quality around us.

The group and its partners have been involved in a variety of initiatives since it started as a Dane County program to preserve the water quality of the Sugar River in the late 1990s. Those include monitoring phosphorus levels in the waterways (which can impact plant and algae growth), conducting mussel surveys (which can indicate the health of a river) and restoring the native oak savanna and prairie landscapes that used to dominate the watershed and the river’s fish habitats.

Now, with the addition of Wallrath on staff, USRWA is bolstering its four-pronged approach to aquatic invasive species: educate, prevent, monitor and control.

The grants fell into the USRWA’s lap, Moder explained, when the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) approached the organization earlier this year. DNR staff asked whether the USRWA would be interested in taking on any of the outstanding grants from the Southwest Badger Resource Conservation and Development Council, Inc., which had ceased operations in February.

The two the USRWA accepted made the invasive species coordinator position possible.

Wallrath’s role, he said, boils down to “training the trainer” by “building regional collaborations with invasive species focused groups.” Those range from people using the land and water resources to municipalities and also include conservation volunteer groups.

Much of his work will be aimed at stopping the spread of invasives through education.

Wallrath, who recently worked as the statewide organisms in trade outreach coordinator and regulation specialist for the DNR, plans to educate bait shops, anglers and waterfowl hunters on how they can prevent the spread of invasive species that negatively affect our wetlands, such as New Zealand mudsnails, Japanese hops, Eurasian watermilfoil and purple loosestrife. He will be coordinating crews conducting Clean Boats, Clean Waters outreach to boaters to stop aquatic hitchhikers at public launches, scheduling invasive identification hikes and paddles, promoting citizen science projects and giving presentations on best management practices.

Wallrath also will work with municipalities to adjust their lawn mowing schedules in the summer so they don’t mow roadsides when invasive species are about to seed, Moder said.

Some of his work will also include physically controlling invasives through spraying, pulling and other methods, which will mean involving more volunteers.

“Community is huge … I am here to be a resource, to be that connection between landowners and the environment,” Wallrath said in his staff biography. “It’s all of our jobs to do (nature preservation), and for those who don’t know where to start, we are here to facilitate.”

Spreading the word

Increasing public awareness and appreciation about USRWA and promoting the variety of opportunities are where Bunting comes in.

Bunting started with USRWA as an intern from January to August 2018 while finishing her undergraduate degree at UW-Madison, majoring in community and nonprofit leadership and minoring in environmental studies and global health.

“I helped organize our first membership drive, and we doubled our membership,” she said. “It’s important to keep these interactions going strong.”

Since July, she has been working part time at USRWA while pursuing a master’s degree in natural resources management. She is interested in grassroots environmental education and passionate about finding fun and inclusive solutions that give people of all backgrounds the opportunity to enjoy nature.

In addition to growing the organization’s membership, which is now just over 100 people, Bunting helps with grant writing, promotional information, the website and volunteer recruitment and retention.

While attending USRWA’s open house at Tuvalu in October, Bunting said she was also looking forward to networking with more people through USRWA’s new outdoor education series, funded by a $2,000 Friends of Dane County Parks Endowment grant through the Foundation for Dane County Parks.

So far, seven of the 12 events in the Watershed Explorers Series have been confirmed in 2020 throughout southwest Dane County. The events will be free to the public and will likely include a 60-90 minute outdoor activity featuring a speaker or guide, such as a winter walk to search for animal tracks, learning about hydrogeology and creating a pollinator garden.

Another ongoing series is “Conversations about Conservation,” which takes place at Wisconsin Brewing Company in Verona the second Tuesday of the month at 6:30 p.m. from December 2019 through April 2020. The series is described as a forum where the public engages experts in an informal, two-way conversation about important issues relating to the watershed. The next event will be Dec. 10, featuring UW-Madison professors Randy Jackson and Claudio Gratton on the topic of grasslands and pollinators.

The USRWA hopes introducing people to these natural spaces and topics might inspire them to volunteer in the future.

“Our goal is to get more people active in the watershed going to parks or natural areas or places they may not have known about,” Moder said.

Engaging new partners

Moder recalls when USRWA had so much more trouble spreading awareness and getting volunteer help. Work days involving clearing branches from the river only seemed to attract the same five volunteers.

An average of 20 people would help with water quality monitoring on a given year, but now, more than 100 have shown up to help with prairie restoration, Moder said. And volunteers contribute approximately 1,000 hours per year combined between USRWA’s programs and events.

“It’s not the same crowd,” Moder said. “Some people don’t want to get their feet wet or be in the river.”

That’s why Moder said offering various types of opportunities is important “to engage current volunteers and provide different experiences and ways” for new people to become involved with USRWA.

Take Keith Kerle of Verona, for example. Hiking the Military Ridge State Trail next to the Sugar River Wetlands State Natural Area, where the prairie restoration is located, is what got him interested in volunteering with USRWA two years ago. He said it’s a “way to give back for the use of the trail,” and what he learns during work days gives him “an appreciation to recognize seed plants or invasives.”

Similarly, Steve Gavin of Verona had taken frequent canoe trips on the Sugar River – what he considers an “underappreciated resource close to Madison” – and had experience planning bike ride routes long before ever volunteering with USRWA. But after attending one of the organization’s annual meetings nearly a decade ago, Gavin quickly began combining his interests to help with the Paddle and Pig-Out and later the Rob’s Sugar River Ramble fundraising events.

Gavin now serves as the board treasurer and volunteers for several other projects.

Jane Schmieding of Madison also helps with Rob’s Sugar River Ramble paddling and biking event. She has been a USRWA member for four years.

“It’s a really great organization,” Schmieding said.

Schmieding said she likes how farmers are getting more involved, mostly through the Farmers for the Upper Sugar River, which promote sustainable agricultural practices aimed at reducing runoff, improving water quality and soil health and strengthening the future of agriculture in the watershed.

That group began in 2016 by offering a cost-share program that is used to incentivize cover crops and no-till planting as well as organizing field days and educational opportunities for farmers.

Moder said USRWA received grant funding to kick-start this farmer-led coalition, which has grown from five to over 40 farmers who represent nearly 11,000 agricultural acres in the watershed. To date, the group has raised $131,000, with the majority going to the cost-share program.

This year, because of the Farmers for the Upper Sugar River effort, the USRWA attended One Water Summit in Austin, Texas, as a member of the National Agriculture Leaders Delegation.

“If you would have told me this group would bring farmers together once a month to have pizza and talk shop, I would have considered that a big win,” Moder said. “It’s blossomed into so much more than that.”