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Trout Unlimited Chapters and Dealing with Climate Change

I recently gave an online talk for Wisconsin Trout Unlimited's Talking Trout series (video embedded below) about climate change, flooding, and stream manipulation and while the topic was fresh in my mind, I figured it was a great time to put some of my thoughts into a blog post.

2018 flood effects
Some of the after effects of the 2018 flood where streams were moved, often times pretty significant distances.

I have certainly written about climate change before - it is, after all, one of the most significant issues we are and will be dealing with into the future. I first wrote an overview of climate change and trout fishing and more recently, I wrote about a study in Wisconsin that looked at the effects on Brook and Brown Trout. And, of course, I am not the first nor the only person writing about how climate change is and will affect trout (Google returns 23 million results and Google Scholar returns 185,000 results).

Source: USGS WaterWatch Flood Tracking Viewer

Here in the Driftless, flooding has been sort of a way of life. Communities were often built in the valleys so they had access to water to power mills. So Coon Valley, Gays Mills, La Farge, Readstown, Soldiers Grove, Viola, and on and on are "river towns". Towns like Viroqua are a bit of an outlier with its perched-on-the-plateau position. I always figured part of what kept Viroqua more prosperous was that it did not have to rebuild from floods. In some ways that flooding has gotten worse. Flooding is maybe less frequent but greater in magnitude the past decade or two.

Source: USGS Peak Streamflow for the Nation

While it was narrowly a Driftless Area talk - I first gave the talk to the Valley Stewardship Network in Viroqua - certainly many of the ideas transcend the Driftless. Global climate change, is well, global. Nowhere is safe from changes due to our burning of fossil fuels and the anthropogenic climate change that comes from it. And as I mention in the talk, flooding is a global issue. That agricultural landscapes are the largest source of stream degradation is certainly not unique - not in Wisconsin nor elsewhere. What is certainly a little unique is how streams are manipulated - improved if you prefer that word (I don't) - in the Driftless. (I hope to follow this post with one about stream manipulations.)

Either watch the video now or save it for a rainy / snowy day...below it are my thoughts on how climate change and flooding is affecting / will continue to affect how Trout Unlimited Chapters operate in the Driftless and elsewhere.

In no particular order, here are some thoughts about the present and future and how to deal with climate change:

  • The two biggest trout related climate change issues are increases in water temperatures and the increased variability in precipitation. Stream temperatures are a fairly complex thing. Certainly we understand that streams are kept cold in Wisconsin by groundwater and that increased air temperatures will result in warmer streams. However, it is not necessarily such a simple relationship. Low stream levels mean less water which warms up faster but that is mitigated in part because lower water levels may mean a higher percentage of the stream is groundwater rather than shallower surface or near-surface groundwater. This summer was dry but other than a few extremely warm days, finding coldwater was not too hard if you were willing to look.

From: Evaluation of trout population trends and fisheries management in the West Fork

Kickapoo River Watershed

  • Precipitation has been "feast or famine" - exactly one of the predictions we have long heard about with climate change. Feast has turned to gluttony at times. In my lifetime, the 2018 flood is "the big one". In fact, in the Kickapoo River and Coon Creek watersheds, it is the flood of record. And this summer was famine. We were well below normal precipitation and our temperature loggers showed some streams reaching temperatures well above "trout-friendly" temperatures. Our streams have been rather low for about a year now - but this is after we've adjusted to a new normal (see above).

Tree planting
A recent tree planting by the Wisconsin DNR along a Coon Creek tributary.
  • Trout Unlimited chapters - such as our chapter (Coulee Region TU), Southern Wisconsin, and the Nohr Chapter among many others - have been planting trees to help provide shade to streams. I suspect that this will be a growing activity for many chapters and DNR fisheries offices. As an aside, I find it interesting that a bit over 30 years ago when I spent a summer on a Wisconsin Youth Conservation Corp crew, one of our jobs was to cut down trees along a stream to provide more sunlight to reach the stream to increase instream productivity. (Visit the post on the River Continuum Concept for more on that topic.)

Failed LUNKER structure
An old LUNKER structure that is "high and dry" - a flood moved it well away from the stream.
  • Many of us familiar with the Driftless Area often associate "stream improvements" with LUNKERS (Little Underwater Neighborhood Keepers Encompassing Rheotactic Salmonids). I remember the days when our TU chapter - Southeastern Wisconsin Chapter - would build 60 LUNKERS in a workday. Those days are largely over. LUNKERS certainly have their place but I think recent floods have shown that other techniques have held up better than have LUNKERS. It seems that the most important thing is to get the floods onto the floodplains and allow them to drop sediments and dissipate energy there rather than directing it to the stream channel and its banks.

College students building LUNKERS
Building LUNKERS with the Five Rivers student chapters of TU at the West Fork Sports Club - those LUNKERS went in this summer.
  • With recent floods, we have seen that there are a number of "problem areas" - places where the effects of floods are most likely to wreak havoc. Bridges have largely been built too small to pass floods, particularly as those floods have grown larger. As you may have witnessed, many bridges were damaged in the 2018 floods. I would love to see infrastructure dollars going to improve the most problematic bridges to size them to pass larger floods. Second, due to the steeper slopes of headwater streams, they have generally seen more damage than have the lower reaches with larger floodplains where flood energy can be directed out of the channel.

Stream work along the West Fork of the Kickapoo River
Stream work along the West Fork of the Kickapoo River - summer of 2022.
  • Overwhelmingly, I think the most important things to prevent stream damage from flood events are to, 1) connect the stream to the floodplain, and 2) slow the water down before it can get to the stream. The first part is something that Trout Unlimited and the WDNR habitat crews generally do a pretty good job with - particularly after seeing the effects of floods in the past few decades. The second part is the tough part because it is particularly expensive. Recently, Jacob Schweitzer, a La Crosse County Conservation Specialist, spoke to the Coulee Region chapter about their project on Bostwick Creek which was made possible by a $600,000 grant to work on a relatively small part of the Bostwick Creek watershed. These sorts of projects are largely reliant upon government programs. It also requires a lot more buy in from landowners to complete these project. The project examples were all significant issues that were cutting gullies into agricultural fields - rather extreme examples. Projects that take land out of production are generally difficult sells - even if they are cost effective in the long-term.

Images of the Bostwick Creek project from Jacob Schweitzer, a La Crosse County Conservation Specialist, that he shared with our TU Chapter. For more images, check out the CRTU Facebook page.

The Wrap-Up

I am trying to keep this one short(ish) because there is an hour(ish) video if you so choose to watch it. I think we - that is Trout Unlimited Chapters - are going through a change. Gone are the LUNKERS build days (largely, at least) where we crank our dozens of LUNKERS. Much of the habitat work is done by heavy equipment. In many cases, the brushing days are harder to come by as well as Fecon heads on backhoes are much more effective. Times are certainly changing and a lot of the projects are larger in scale and more expensive than a TU chapter can contribute significantly too.

A new access stile.
Several chapters have been improving angler access by replacing and improving access stiles - a great work day project.

However, there is still a lot that Trout Unlimited chapters can contribute. On the Bostwick Creek project, because of the nature of the funding, they could not fund fish habitat through the grant so our chapter financially supported that part of the project. There is a ton of riparian management to be done that TU chapters can contribute to - whether that be assisting with shrub removal, prairie burns, or tree plantings. I think that monitoring is one of the places that our chapter - and I assume many other chapters - could do more to contribute to "the greater good". Monitoring water levels, water quality (whether through periodic water sampling or macroinvertebrate indices of biotic integrity), surveying spawning time and locations, maintaining water temperature loggers, or any number of other projects that increase engagement. Nonprofit advocacy and engagement are on the decline, however, I think in general, Wisconsin TU chapters have survived this pretty well - so far.

CRTU STREAM Girls - Summer 2023
Coulee Region TU's 3rd annual STREAM Girls event had a great turnout of both participants and TU volunteers.

Our challenge will be how do we keep people engaged in a time when there is less engagement? I think that answer will look a little different for every chapter. I am not sure what it will look like for our chapter but I can say that we have great participation in youth educations events (but we can ALWAYS use more volunteers). Historically our chapter has not hosted a lot of work days and when we have, it has been with other chapters. We are a resource-rich, human-capital poor area (we have lots of streams, not so many people) and our area is a destination for many Wisconsin and Midwest anglers (and some from much farther away). What works for us - and that is a constant evolution - may not work for other chapters. As things change, so must our chapters.

Just my thoughts - please share yours below in the comments.

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