University of Wisconsin-Madison Water Resources Management graduate students at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies developed management recommendations for the Waubesa Wetlands watershed. An accompanying report was developed for the Capital Area Regional Planning Commission (CARPC), the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR), the City of Fitchburg, the Town of Dunn, and other interested stakeholders.




1. Restore and maintain wetlands along Swan Creek to enhance ecosystem services provided to Waubesa Wetlands

Wetlands on private property along Swan Creek represent an opportunity for restoration and maintenance that could benefit the watershed in multiple ways. Eroding streambanks in riparian wetlands along Swan Creek may be contributing to elevated concentrations of total phosphorus and total suspended solids. Re-grading and replanting slumping and undercut streambanks would allow elevated water levels to spread out and soak in. This would improve water quality by trapping nutrients and sediments while increasing flood and stormwater storage in upland areas. In addition, adding new vegetation would help stabilize stream shorelines and could increase habitat for wildlife, fish, and aquatic species.

One of the key findings from the modeling effort indicated that the cumulative watershed-scale impact of land use change from individual development sites on surface water quantity is not linear. Restoring wetlands along Swan Creek will help moderate this effect, compensating for these unregulated development impacts. It is recommended that the City of Fitchburg and the Town of Dunn coordinate wetland restoration efforts within their respective boundaries with developers, private landowners, CARPC, and the Friends of Waubesa Wetlands.

2. Assess ecosystem services and preserve wetlands along Murphy’s Creek

Ecosystem service assessments are helpful tools for evaluating the capacity of wetlands to provide specific services. With limited time and resources, this project focused on WRAM Level 2 analysis on wetlands along Swan Creek. Given potential future development in the Murphy’s Creek watershed, a similar analysis in upstream areas could yield valuable information about where to prioritize land preservation through conservation easements. A survey would also collect baseline information about wetland conditions prior to any future development. Furthermore, this survey data could help identify restoration areas with the purpose of enhancing specific ecosystem services.

          • If a Level 2 analysis cannot be conducted, utilize Wetlands by Design or Wetlands and Watersheds Explorer as a Level 1 assessment tool for Murphy’s Creek wetlands. In Level 1, landscape-scale assessments are performed using broad-scale datasets in a geographic information system (GIS). This is useful for determining areas for wetland restoration and protection at a watershed scale without conducting fieldwork.
          • Prioritize wetland restoration efforts in wetlands where services are “bundled,” or occur together, in order to maximize such services and available resources. Some projects that may be employed for wetland restoration include invasive species removal, prescribed burns, and streambank stabilization.

The Friends of Waubesa Wetlands can aid in such efforts in the Waubesa Wetlands State Natural Area; it is recommended that these and other restoration volunteer efforts expand to include wetlands throughout the Murphy’s Creek watershed.

3. Continue surface water monitoring and build a comprehensive watershed dataset

Land use is changing and will continue to change in the Waubesa Wetlands watershed. Sustained monitoring provides metrics to measure the impact of land use change on surface water quality and quantity. Our monitoring data supplement previous monitoring conducted by the Rock River Coalition (RRC) since 2015. Taken together, these data characterize stream conditions during the initial stages of urban development in certain areas of the watershed. Comprehensive surface water monitoring should continue during and after development. Monitoring plans should take into account the information presented in this report as well as planned watershed changes. To build a robust long-term watershed dataset, it is specifically recommended to invest resources to support RRC in these actions:

          • Advance RRC’s efforts to collect monthly grab samples under baseflow conditions at watershed outlet sites of Swan and Murphy’s creeks on Lalor Road. These data provide an important, comparable baseline to track seasonal and annual changes. Already, there are indications of annual changes in some nutrients, as well as nutrient concentrations that consistently exceed TMDL standards for total suspended solids and total phosphorus in both creeks. It is suggested to start monitoring in February to capture water quality conditions before spring snowmelt, and monitoring Swan Creek water quality downstream of the Lalor Road culvert. Furthermore, it is recommended that when sampling, volunteers measure and record the height from the USGS-installed reference points to the water surface to be able to connect nutrient concentrations with future flow data.
          • Coordinate same-day monitoring of paired upstream and downstream sites on Swan Creek. This effort was started to track nutrient changes upstream and downstream of the Terravessa development in the Northeast Neighborhood. Monitoring paired sites on different days does not provide the same data resolution and thus has less value for management efforts. Paired sampling should be considered for Murphy’s Creek in the future.
          • Expand grab sample collection to include high-flow conditions to capture storm event loads. Observed spikes in nutrient concentrations during and after storms may represent much of the loading in the watershed for total suspended solids and total phosphorus. Without high-flow data, total nutrient loads are grossly underestimated.
          • Develop a plan to expand monitoring to include emerging contaminants of concern. Elevated chloride concentrations were observed and levels are expected to increase with urbanization. Wetlands may also be sensitive to thermal pollution, metals, hydrocarbons, and pharmaceuticals, which have not yet been monitored in the watershed.
          • Consider adding permanent lake monitoring to track nutrient concentrations in Lake Waubesa and elucidate how they are affected by development. This data may help characterize nutrient dynamics occurring in Waubesa Wetlands as well.
          • Ensure that all surface water monitoring efforts for both creeks continue to be aggregated in a central database. Currently, all project and RRC data are in the WDNR SWIMS system. Some historical datasets, stored outside of this location, were unable to be located and thus not used for this project. An easily accessible, comprehensive database will aid in the creation of future rating curves for both streams and will allow for the identification of long-term trends in water quality.

4. Install a USGS long-term monitoring site at Swan Creek

Continuous streamflow data is needed to calculate annual watershed pollutant loading. This process was started by manually collecting stage and flow measurements, creating a rating curve, and then installing an automated sampler on Swan Creek at Lalor Road from June to October 2018. The automated sampler collects stage data and converts it into flow data, resulting in minute-by-minute resolution of stream flow. It can also collect water samples during storm events that can be analyzed for nutrient concentrations. Manually collecting samples during storms is extremely challenging. Samples collected during storms for this project had different nutrient concentrations than samples collected during base flow. For nutrients like total phosphorus and total suspended solids, much of the watershed loading may be from storm events. Thus, it is extremely important to continue to monitor Swan Creek during high flows.

Stream flow and nutrient concentrations can vary year to year because of changes in land use and precipitation. With only one season of data, the rating curve developed during this project should be considered preliminary. An additional season of manual flow measurements is needed to refine the curve. After that, installation of an automated sampler on Swan Creek at Lalor Road is recommended. This sampler should be used as a USGS long-term monitoring site for the watershed. Flow data paired with storm samples and RRC grab samples can be used to calculate watershed loads for pollutants of interest. Any future water quantity/quality models would benefit from being calibrated with high-resolution water quantity data. A monitoring site will enable a robust dataset to be gathered that can be used to evaluate long-term trends connected with watershed land use change.

5. Design and build for a changing climate in the Waubesa Wetlands watershed, specifically increased precipitation/flow and more extreme storm events

Based on recent trends, climate change will increase the frequency and intensity of precipitation events in Wisconsin, Dane County, and the Waubesa Wetlands watershed. This could be especially detrimental to wetland communities. Because of this, stormwater performance standards for development should be modified to reflect a new reality. Modeling results indicated that climate change will have a large impact on peak flow rates in the watershed. Coupled with urbanization, the impact is anticipated to be even greater.

Currently, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Dane County, and the City of Fitchburg require peak flow rates to match for pre- and post-development. To mitigate future sediment and nutrient erosion, we recommend that new development be required to reduce peak flow rates from pre-development conditions, or develop new precipitation frequency estimates for precipitation depth based on a future climate. Utilizing region-specific information from the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI) could help future development be built with a greater component of resiliency. This is especially important for wetland ecosystems and their associated services that could deteriorate with increased stormwater runoff and water level fluctuations that change wetland hydroperiods. In addition, we recommend that any new development be built with an emphasis on infiltration by limiting impervious surfaces and maintaining areas of natural vegetation to reduce runoff and support groundwater recharge.

6. Investigate climate change and land use effects on groundwater

The hydrogeology of Waubesa Wetlands shapes the wetlands’ unique physical environment and plant communities. Field observations, water quality monitoring, and consultation with a Waubesa Wetlands expert, Professor Emeritus Cal Dewitt, indicate that Waubesa Wetlands are inseparably interconnected with local groundwater. Given the limited scope, this project was unable to include a focused groundwater study. It should be stressed, however, that a complete management plan for Waubesa Wetlands requires further examination of groundwater dynamics. Intelligently managing surface water requires fully understanding its relationship with groundwater. Surface water watersheds do not necessarily align with groundwater watersheds. Until those connections are better understood in the Waubesa Wetlands watershed, it is strongly recommended that caution be exercised when considering any high-capacity groundwater withdrawal near Waubesa Wetlands or any other wetlands in its watershed.

7. Educate new watershed residents about water quality and wetlands

An influx of new residents creates an opportunity to enhance public education about water quality and ways that individuals can support wetland ecosystem health. In and around new developments, it is suggested that the City of Fitchburg:

          • Place environmental education signage. Interpretive information could be located near wetlands and natural features in neighborhoods and address topics such as urban water runoff, low-impact residential landscaping, invasive species control, and wetland ecosystem services. This can help add to a sense of place, pride, and stewardship for local natural resources. The City could also consider naming newly developed streets after species that live in or near Waubesa Wetlands.

Along roads at boundaries of the Waubesa Wetlands watershed, the City of Fitchburg and Town of Dunn are advised to:

          • Introduce watershed signage. Visible markers indicating “You are now entering the Waubesa Wetlands watershed” could help increase local awareness of how land is connected to local water bodies and wetlands.

Additionally, it is recommended that CARPC:

          • Maintain an updated website for the Waubesa Wetlands watershed. The website developed through this project serves as a water quality sharing platform and allows watershed residents and interested stakeholders to stay informed. As new water quality data is collected and analyzed, it can be shared in an accessible format. This site, and others such as Wetlands by Design, are resources and tools for residents to increase their knowledge of wetlands in their watershed and the services that these wetlands provide.

8. Sustain and build the Friends of Waubesa Wetlands

This project helped increase the membership, capacity, and role of the Friends of Waubesa Wetlands. At outreach and education events, 416 individuals were engaged to increase awareness about Waubesa Wetlands and the Friends group. During this project, there was a kickoff meeting and three additional monthly meetings to develop the Friends group’s mission statement and structure. It is anticipated that the group's empowered and motivated members will take the necessary steps to expand and continue to fulfill the goals of the mission statement. It is recommended that the Friends of Waubesa Wetlands:

          • Continue to coordinate monthly meetings and events. This will help the group finish acquiring non-profit status and thus expand its resources and opportunities. Regular meetings can also increase membership and aid in identifying leaders for education and recreation committees. Augmenting regular wetland restoration and management initiatives with education and recreation could broaden the group’s appeal to more people.
          • Increase membership diversity. There are opportunities for the Friends group to attract young individuals and members from all areas of the watershed, including both the Town of Dunn and the City of Fitchburg. The Friends group is in a unique position to link upstream and downstream neighbors with stakeholders. The group should specifically engage with residents along Swan and Murphy’s creeks and with new residents of the Terravessa Neighborhood. Tapping into existing community events has proven effective in reaching wide audiences and potential members.
          • Utilize this report to focus future advocacy and ecological management. As the Friends group expands, hopefully the project's report can guide additional research, protection, and management.