Dredging, public water protection can co-exist with compromise
By Ken Blomberg
It began as a tavern-house, then a creek and township. The name that is, as Portage County historian Malcom Rosholt described it in his classic book, “Our County Our Story.” The name took on the identity of each back around 1850. Near a tavern called “Buena Vista,” a community sprung up, bearing the same name, as did a post office, just south of the Buena Vista Creek.
An 1851 surveyor noted, “The Township contains 26 families and about 100 souls all engaged in farming. The waters of the Township flow into Buena Vista creek on the W(est) and into a stream (Spring Creek) which runs eastwardly into the Waupaca. Water clear and cold.”
The Buena Vista Creek, according to Rosholt, was “fed by springs, carried enough water at the time to form a fair-sized pond here (Keene) for boomage.” A saw mill and foundry were built on the south bank of the creek. A third creek called Duck, flowed through the length of Buena Vista in Range 8, passing around a small village originally called “Pine Island” but later named “Coddington” when a post office was established.
Aldo Leopold, in 1934, described what happened when man alters the land too much and then encouraged landowners to organize to achieve conservation goals. “In the gay ‘90s came the drainage dredge, the land shark, the urge for more acreage, and all the other paraphernalia of what we fondly called ‘the march of empire.’
“Ditches 10 feet deep were cut through the peat, lowering the water table many feet. Farming, except in the northeast corner of the area, failed … drainage as such, of course, eliminated the ducks … drought allowed dried peat to burn.”
And Buena Vista and Duck creeks disappeared. Replacing them were drainage ditches, taking on numerical names, numbers 2, 3, 4 and 8. Ditches would improve farming, they said. But it failed – from Dancy to the north to the county line. Drawing down the water table during periods of drought was counterproductive. It wasn’t until pivot irrigation came on the scene that farming on the Buena Vista marsh flourished.
Frost was common for all but a few months of the year and irrigation saved the day when applied on frosty mornings. Today, Portage County boasts of a $5 billion a year agricultural industry, of which the Buena Vista marsh is a large part.
So, what of the drainage ditches today, 100-plus years later? The Department of Natural Resources classifies most of Buena Vista’s ditches and laterals as Class II and III trout streams. Their waters run clear and cold in the ditches and support trout, muskrat, mink, otter, beaver, waterfowl and a host of aquatic and streambank critters.
That is, until dredging under the scope of maintenance is ordered. Dredging destroys those ratings and the habitat of creatures with fins, feathers and fur. But the Portage County Drainage District, the largest in the state, must follow the rules, laws with over 100 years of history behind them.
It is odd, however, how dredging and the protection of public water rights can co-exist in our county without compromise and achieving conservation goals.
Portage County’s Circuit Court Judge will soon make two appointments for vacancies on the Drainage District Board. A newly organized Friends of Buena Vista Marsh (on Facebook) hopes to see those two seats filled by members of the conservation community – alongside two current members of the farming community – all in the name of compromise, achieving conservation goals and public rights.