Those interested in the quality of the water in the Willow and St. Croix rivers would love to see more agricultural and rural property owners become involved in the Willow River Project.

Since 1999, experts have been monitoring the rising amount of nutrients being added to these waterways. They hope to turn things around with a little cooperation.

"Anyone living in the Willow River Watershed contributes to putting nutrients into the water, which impacts the water quality," said Richard Heise, director of the St. Croix Land and Water Conservation and Parks Department. "We all have to pitch in to make differences in the water quality."

Recently, a stakeholders group has taken it upon themselves to have a written proposal drawn up. The document will be sent to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for approval in an effort to limit the amount of nutrients entering Lake Mallalieu and the Willow River.

These stakeholders include the St. Croix County Land and Water Conservation and Parks Department, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the Willow River Rehabilitation District, Lake Mallalieu Association members, St. Croix County Board of Supervisors and some agricultural producers in the watershed area.

Ongoing project

Although the first meeting for the Willow River Project was in May 2008, the research for the project has actually been in the works for many years, according to Sue Magdalene, the person appointed to write the EPA proposal.

An employee of the Watershed Research Station in Marine on the St. Croix, Minn., Magdalene was given the task of writing the proposal and coordinating the efforts of stakeholders interested in improving the water quality in the St. Croix Watershed.

Magdalene is basing her recommendations on much of the research that has been done in the past nine years.

"The Willow River is the first watershed within the St. Croix Basin that's had so much work done on it," Magdalene said. "There has been a very thorough job done of measuring annual loads at all the U.S. Geological flow gauge points in the basin."

Magdalene said this provides critical information regarding the past status of the water as compared to its present status. The data gives her a good idea of which way the health of the river is headed, said Magdalene.

"The Willow River is on the EPA's list of impaired rivers due to the high levels of phosphorous it contains," Magdalene explained. "Because of that designation, the Willow gets more attention and progress can be made to improve it more quickly."

Armed with such thorough past and present data, Magdalene will finish her proposal to the EPA by the end of the year with recommendations on how to more quickly clean up the watershed. She expects the EPA to approve her proposal or get back to her with changes about six months after receiving it.

"We are in the educational phase of planning at this point in the Willow River Project," Magdalene said. "Now is when we need to gather the stakeholders together and explain what has happened to these waterways and what needs to happen to improve them in the future."

Magdalene's data shows that to meet current Wisconsin standards there needs to be a 40 - 50 percent reduction in nutrients put into the Willow River relative to the average 1990s conditions.

Nutrient sources

The sources from which nutrients enter the water are divided into non-point sources and point sources by experts in the field.

A point source, as explained by Magdalene, is "anything with a pipe that has a GPS location." This includes wastewater treatment plants, industry, municipal facilities, etc.

The second source is called a non-point source, which is anywhere nutrients enter the water by diffusely spreading across the land from drainage. This would include farm fields, rural yards and any other land that drains into a river or waterway.

The good news is, according to Magdalene, that the point sources in this area have reduced the amount of nutrients they release into the water since the 1990s by 80 percent. However, point sources only account for about 10 - 15 percent of all sources in the area delivering nutrients to the waterways.

"The wastewater treatment plants and other point sources have really cleaned up their acts in the last several years," Magdalene said. "This has accounted for about an overall 13 percent decrease in nutrients entering the rivers. Now we need to address the non-point sources to bring that number down even more."

There are several ways Magdalene proposes to do this in her Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) report to EPA. She calls them best management practices and said there are three major scenarios the non-point sources could adopt.

The first scenario focuses on agricultural producers and is called reduced tillage. In this scenario fewer tillage runs are done through crops or none could be done if dealing with soybeans. This would reduce the amount of nutrient runoff from those agricultural fields.

The second scenario involves nutrient management. Since there is an excess of phosphorous in the soil within the St. Croix Watershed, Magdalene suggests reducing the amount of nutrients put on crops. She cautions that this is a slow process which must be implemented over time and can only reduce the nutrient level by one part per million per year.

Finally, grassed waterways is another best practice suggested by Magdalene. This requires vegetation to be heavily planted where water flows and extended onto the land which surrounds the waterways. The vegetation catches some of the runoff and keeps some of the nutrients from running into the water.

Stakeholders decision

Once EPA returns the proposal with either their recommendations or their approval, the stakeholders need to get together again to agree on how best to mitigate the excessive nutrient problem.

Magdalene calls that next step the decision-making part of the process, which will come after the educational phase they are now in.

"At that time stakeholders will have to look at how they want to clean up Lake Mallalieu; how best to get to the level of clean up they agree upon and which method(s) they will use," Magdalene said. "The EPA will determine how much we need to reduce the nutrients in the water and will determine a split between the point sources and non-point sources, but it's ultimately up to the stakeholders how we get to that level."

Next will come an implementation report stating how to reach the goals set by the EPA and agreed upon by the stakeholders. That document will determine who will do what, how changes will be implemented and how to monitor progress, said Magdalene.