To learn more about water resources, Students for Wetland Awareness, Management and Protection, a club at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, went on a paddling tour of the Stevens Point flowage.
Led by Tracy Hames, executive director for Wisconsin Wetlands Association, paddlers journeyed approximately five miles from the State 10 boat launch to Bukolt Park on Oct. 6. Hames spoke about the history and ecology of the flowage and also discussed how flowages may provide good wildlife and fish habitat.
The event coincided with the Stevens Point portion of Ruth Oppedahl’s “I Heart Wisconsin: River Trip,” an 18-day journey down the river from source to mouth. Oppedahl is the executive director of the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, and she said the journey is her way of honoring Wisconsin’s natural places and inspiring people to take action in the wake of unprecedented state funding reductions in 2015.
Oppedahl and Hames both earned their master’s degrees from UWSP, where Hames studied the flowage extensively. He mapped vegetation and water depth, and his studies on waterfowl, macro invertebrates and native wild celery were part of his thesis in the late 1980s.
Hames began the tour by explaining how flowages work and why they are established. The local paper mill, he said, requires an enormous amount of power. By damming the river and controlling the flow through the gates, consistent power may be supplied to the mill.
Supplying consistent power, however, has created large reservoirs of water with minimal flooding, which effects river ecology, Hames said.
“What normally would rise and fall seasonally doesn’t really rise and fall anymore,” he said. “It’s important that rivers flood. Everything’s adapted to it.”
In the absence of flooding, other species may still take advantage. Hames said areas that were originally in the floodplain of the river can now support upland species like oak, basswood and maple. Other areas created by the flowage provide prime waterfowl food, and cover plants take hold.
The flowage’s remote location and largely undeveloped shores also contribute to its ecological importance. Nutrient cycling and forest structure is enhanced in an untamed environment, Hames said.
“The forests are really messy. You get a lot of things involved because of the messiness of the forest,” he said. “That’s really good cover for wildlife.”
Hames said the duck hunting blinds throughout the flowage have been restored since 1980. His wild celery research as a student helped confirm signs that duck populations may be on the rise, since the plant is a main source of food for canvasback ducks.
David Peterson, senior water resources major, accompanied the tour group and said one of his favorite parts was seeing the blinds because they are proof of improved habitat. He also enjoyed connecting with people who share his interest in wetlands and the flowage.
“I saw this as a good opportunity to learn about the Stevens Point flowage, which I’ve never been on even though it’s so close to campus,” Peterson said. “I think people should take some time to learn about river ecology in general, with over a third of the U.S. population getting their drinking water from stream systems.”
Peterson hopes to eventually manage large-scale watershed projects. The outing was an opportunity to chat with experts in the field before freeze-up.
“I wanted to support SWAMP, the Wisconsin Wetlands Association and the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin,” Peterson said. “And who can resist a paddle on the Wisconsin River when the autumn leaves are turning?”
Abby Lichtscheidl, junior waste management major, attended the tour because she wanted to be more involved with the student organization and reach out to the wetland association. She said she enjoyed the experience even though she was unfamiliar with the flowage and inexperienced in paddling.
“I learned today that flowages are good for waterfowl habitat,” Lichtscheidl said. “It was good to get out there and meet new faces.”