Building the Capacity of Green Lake’s Guardian

Researchers installed buoys in Green Lake to collect data for the 2017 lake study with the US Geological Survey and Michigan Technological University.

Green Lake holds a special place in the hearts of Wisconsin and Midwest residents. As the deepest natural inland lake in Wisconsin, reaching depths of 236 feet, it’s a vital part of our communities. Yet, like many lakes, it faces challenges from urban development and agricultural activities, resulting in issues like increased weed and algae growth and dead zones for fish and aquatic life due to low oxygen levels in certain areas.

Since the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) declared Green Lake as an impaired waterbody in 2014, the Green Lake Association (GLA) has been working tirelessly to carry out its mission to safeguard Green Lake by improving its water quality, protecting it from critical threats, and accelerating its return to a clean lake.  In 2016, two powerful grants came together to sharpen the organization’s trajectory and accelerate progress.

That year, Stephanie Prellwitz, GLA Chief Executive Officer, had applied for a $200,000 Surface Water Grant from the WDNR to assess the health of Big Green Lake and inform watershed strategies to reduce phosphorus loading. But she knew she needed additional support to make this project a reality.

That’s when the Oshkosh Area Community Foundation stepped in with a three-year, $38,700 capacity building grant from the Community Impact Fund. This grant allowed GLA to expand to two full-time employees just in time to implement the WDNR grant that was awarded.

A Wake-up Call

The 2017 research project, completed in collaboration with the US Geological Survey and Michigan Technological University, revealed the need for a 50-70% reduction in phosphorus levels—a significant wake-up call for the organization whose previous goal was a 10% reduction in phosphorus.

Stephanie recalls, “The capacity building grant was a game changer for us. It allowed us to take on larger projects like this research project, which we’re still using the findings of today as the foundation of everything we do. I am proud that we brought science to the forefront of how we make decisions. And I appreciate that the Community Foundation was willing to fund staff. Too often donors only want to fund projects, but you need people to make those projects happen.”

Since then, GLA has transformed its strategy and messaging, emphasizing the urgency of Green Lake’s health. With its current team of eight staff members and an annual investment of $2.5 million in lake restoration efforts (versus $250,000 in 2016), GLA is making a tangible difference in the community.

Celebrating Small Victories

“When you’re working in the world of water quality change, you don’t see big sweeping changes quickly and so you have to look for those smaller wins,” shares Stephanie.

One of those smaller wins was the restoration of brook trout to Dakin Creek, a stream flowing into Green Lake. After 70 years without brook trout, GLA’s efforts to repair eroding stream banks and improve habitat have paid off. Last year, the WDNR confirmed that brook trout had multiplied naturally.

“It’s very exciting that the brookies are back! My childhood memories of fishing the creek, even though I’m 72, still burn bright. I love that I can now share that experience with my grandkids,” said Joe Norton, whose family has deep connections to Green Lake as fishing guides for four generations.

Another win comes from the concerted efforts of local farmers to implement soil conservation practices. With over 60% of Green Lake’s drainage area being agricultural, farmers play a pivotal role in the future of the lake’s health. Cover crops, retention ponds, and other initiatives dot the landscape, quietly slowing the flow of phosphorus into Big Green Lake.

Dave Wilke, local farmer and past president of the Green Lake County Farm Bureau, explains, “We’re trying not to over apply nitrogen, phosphorus and [potassium] because it costs too much money, and it has a really good chance of winding up [in nearby streams].”

By preserving soil integrity, these practices actively safeguard Big Green’s water bodies. In 2022 alone, approximately 2,660 pounds of phosphorus were diverted from Big Green Lake— thanks to the work of the GLA, its partners, and willing landowners—preventing an estimated 1,330,000 pounds of weeds and algae from growing in the lake and tangling toes.

A Team Effort

Behind GLA’s success story lies a community of heroes—from academic researchers and local farmers to everyday folks who care. “The Oshkosh Area Community Foundation’s investment in capacity building played a huge part in GLA’s journey, proving that when people come together, amazing things can happen,” reflects Stephanie.

With grit, teamwork, and a whole lot of heart, GLA continues to forge ahead, breathing new life into Green Lake and giving us all hope for a brighter tomorrow.

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