Fall 2022 newsletter

Oct 18, 2022 | Newsletters

Enjoy River Alliance of Wisconsin’s Fall 2022 WaterWays newsletter. To get a copy of WaterWays, become a River Alliance member or pick up a print copy at local events with our partners across Wisconsin. Download a PDF copy of the full newsletter.


Fall 2022 | Volume 28, Issue 3


River Alliance turns 30 in 2023

Looking to make a big impact to help celebrate 30 years of protecting and restoring water? We’re kicking off the celebration during the year-end giving season! It’s a great time to renew your membership and get a sticker that shows that you care about Our Waters’ Future. 

Save the date for Giving Tuesday on Nov. 29. Your donation will be matched!


Allison Werner's headshotWe’re ready for whatever lies ahead

by Allison Werner

Wisconsin is at a crossroads. What happens on November 8th will either leave us with the status quo in the state legislature, or we will find ourselves under the control of one political party. Either path will have significant consequences for environmental policies.

You’ve witnessed the stalemate of political inaction over the past few years. You may remember the rollbacks to environmental laws under Scott Walker’s administration. It’s disappointing when our state legislature doesn’t make clean water a priority when it is something Wisconsinites can unite on, but it’s outright frightening to think of how easily water protections can be eroded with one party dominating the state legislature, the executive office, and a conservative-leaning supreme court.

After Governor Evers declared 2019 the Year of Clean Drinking Water, we worked to organize Wisconsinites to bring their water protection concerns to the Speaker’s Water Quality Task Force hearings. While we knew the task force was not likely to accomplish all the needed policy changes to provide people with clean water now and repair our broken water management system, we did see some progress and a willingness for both sides of the legislative aisle to work together.

One example is Assembly Bill 727, which was signed by Governor Evers and provides a small amount of funding for pilot projects for commercial nitrogen optimization pilots and cover crop insurance premium rebates. Around 100,000 Wisconsin families have high nitrate levels in their water wells and need help to have safe drinking water. Our state also needs systemic changes that support farming practices that keep fertilizer pollution out of our groundwater.

In recent news articles, Republican legislators Senator Robert Cowles of Green Bay and Representative Todd Novak of Dodgeville acknowledged that we need to do more to protect Wisconsin’s water. We expect Adams, Bayfield, Juneau, Green, and Outagamie Counties to join Eau Claire, La Crosse, Marquette, Portage, and Wood Counties to vote YES to the advisory Clean Water Now referendum questions this fall and send a clear, bipartisan message to their state legislators that they want action to protect our water.

Whether we face more of the same or a new era of environmental rollbacks, we will need every River Rat to be ready to speak up for clean water in 2023. We will pick our battles, but we need each of you to sign up for our email updates at wisconsinrivers.org, contact your legislators when the time is right, and invite others to join us in this work.


Are you a River Alliance super fan?

Can you contribute your skills, connections, and leadership to our organization? You might be a good candidate to serve on our Board of Directors. We are especially looking for leaders who live Up North or those who are from Black, Indigenous, or other historically underrepresented communities. Apply at wisconsinrivers.org/board-application.  


Johnson Bridgwater headshot

What’s next for Clean Water Now: November 8th and beyond

By Johnson Bridgwater

More voters in Wisconsin will have a chance to vote YES for clean water on Election Day, November 8. Learn what the Clean Water Now referendum movement is and why these grassroots, county-by-county ballot questions and resolutions are an important way for voters to demonstrate their clean water values.

What is Clean Water Now?

Clean Water Now is an advisory referendum that reads, “Should the State of Wisconsin establish a right to clean water to protect human health, the environment, and the diverse cultural and natural heritage of Wisconsin?”

What will this advisory referendum accomplish? And what will it cost?

When voters have a chance to show they value clean water above partisan politics, they will vote in support of our water resources. When the outcomes of these referendums are strong, they can be used to remind statewide elected officials that people want their right to clean water put first over political divisions.

Unlike many referendums to decide how taxes are spent on schools or other public services, the Clean Water Now question is advisory and has no direct impact on government spending.

Which counties have voted YES to Clean Water Now?

Eau Claire – 79% support, April 2022

La Crosse – 86% support, April 2022

Marquette – 73% support, April 2021

Portage – 77% support, April 2021

Wood – 76% support, April 2021

Where will voters say YES to Clean Water Now on November 8th? 

Adams, Bayfield, Juneau, Green, and Outagamie County voters will have the question on their ballots this fall, including ballots for those who vote absentee or vote early by mail. Visit myvote.wi.gov to check your voter registration status. 

Don’t forget that Wednesday, October 19th is the deadline to register to vote online or by mail. After this date, voters should register in person at your municipal clerk’s office or at your polling place.

What will happen after November 8th?

First, we will celebrate the county board members and voters who took a stand for water in ten counties. Second, we will carry those results into all of our future work to protect clean water, and we will help local organizations and grassroots activists use the results in their advocacy. Third, we will encourage more counties – like Monroe County – to pass resolutions in support of Clean Water Now. The first ten counties have built momentum. Next, resolutions approved by county boards will continue building that momentum for Clean Water Now to show how our state agrees on the right to clean water.

Want your county to pass a Clean Water Now resolution in 2023? Contact Water Advocates Organizer Johnson Bridgwater at [email protected] for tips on how to ask your county board to take action or a toolkit for elected officials to effectively advocate for a Clean Water Now resolution. 

Please join us. Get updates on the counties that will include the Clean Water Now question on fall ballots. Follow @CleanWaterNowWI and #CleanWaterNowWI on Instagram and Twitter. Stay in touch because we all know “you can’t ‘Wisconsin’ without clean water.”


Johnson And Jamie

Jamie O’Neill helped voters have a voice for Clean Water Now 

by Stacy Harbaugh

At the start of 2022, Jamie O’Neill was juggling a lot of responsibilities. She was a member of the La Crosse County Board of Supervisors, she was organizing the Agnes W. H. Tan Science Symposium at Viterbo University on the topic of “What’s In Our Drinking Water?”, and she was caring for her two young children. 

A common thread through those responsibilities was her passion for protecting clean drinking water in her community and for her family’s health. It’s why she ran for the county board to advocate for solutions to the water quality problems La Crosse County faced. After she connected with River Alliance of Wisconsin’s Water Advocates Organizer Johnson Bridgwater, she found one easy way to allow citizens to have a voice for clean water by introducing the Clean Water Now advisory referendum to the county board to add to spring election ballots. 

“I was super relieved as a board supervisor to know that there were resources out there to make a clean water advisory referendum question happen,” Jamie said. “Clean water is why I ran for the board. I wouldn’t have known where to start to write a referendum, and I was grateful to have those resources. It made me more willing to bring it forth and stand behind it because it was vetted by an organization that put in the time and energy to make sure it had what was needed.”

Most supervisors had already heard that water pollution was a top concern for both urban and rural constituents, so they were also looking for ways to do something about it. Jamie said there was, however, some pushback during the debate from supervisors who wondered if the question was “too obvious” to ask voters. 

“Just bringing this up at the board level and having people talk about this was helpful,” said Jamie. “What really kept me aligned in wanting this to go through when these referendums passed was having more attention and accountability – and hopefully more resources – that can come when people know it’s a focus of our county. Now I know if there are other concerns that come up beyond PFAS and nitrates, I’ll have more confidence it will be looked at because our board said they are committed to this.”

Two of the top water concerns in La Crosse are PFAS and nitrate contamination.

For years, La Crosse used fire-extinguishing foam near the French Island airport for firefighting training. The products contained types of PFAS, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, that are a large family of chemicals that cause harm to human health, are persistent in our environment, and are difficult to destroy. Over time, the chemicals seeped into the ground and entered the groundwater, making the source of drinking water unsafe for families to use in their homes. 

Nitrates are a problem in rural parts of La Crosse County. Jamie started paying closer attention to this issue when an industrial dairy in Holmen had a leaky manure storage pit. Nearby families raised concerns and voiced opposition to its water pollution permit renewal.

“That debate made me curious about the processes that we have,” she said. “I wondered, are we allowing businesses to have the upper hand over community health? How is the business getting priority over human health?” 

Jamie O'Neill and her children pose for a selfie during a river clean upThe Clean Water Now referendum was just one part of Jamie’s clean water advocacy. From her studies in public health to her work with a school garden initiative called GROW, she’s thought a lot about how our health and the health of our environment are deeply intertwined. It was at a program for the Sustainability Institute that originally sparked her interest in running for office to make a difference.  

“I was running late, and I grabbed one of the last seats at a table in the back,” she remembered. “It turned out that everyone else at the table was on the county board. As we started talking with each other about clean water issues, they all said I should run. I thought about how whenever I showed up for clean water events and hearings, the board members who were present were influential in those spaces. I realized that running for the board was a way I could make an impact on clean water for the future.”

Though she chose not to run for reelection after a demanding job change and family needs became her priority, she still plans on being an advocate for clean water.

“I may be an ‘outsider’ now, but now I know what the county board is capable of,” she said. “I hope constituents keep bringing their water concerns, whether that’s getting free testing, getting clean water, or finding out what contaminants are in our water, and stop them moving forward. I think how we’ve responded to PFAS can be a model in how we deal with pollution. I hope in the future we can detect, respond, and reduce pollution and secure clean water for people more quickly.” 

Blog post: Jamie O’Neill helped voters have a voice for Clean Water Now

We also shared Jamie’s story in our Word on the Stream e-newsletter and on social media this month. Be the first to get our next water champion story in your inbox. Subscribe to Word on the Stream today.


A woman holds a tackle box with a River Alliance stickerOur Waters’ Future: 30 years of water protection

River Alliance of Wisconsin was founded in 1993 by people who cared deeply about the rivers and streams of Wisconsin. With a clear vision for a future where people are informed and engaged in the work to save our rivers, our organization has been a voice for Wisconsin’s water for 30 years. And we are just getting started. 

Next year, we invite you to help us celebrate 30 years of empowering people to protect and restore Wisconsin’s priceless clean water resources. We want you to help us look into the future and share your vision for what we need to do to protect our water. We will also reflect on the past 30 years of the impact River Alliance and our local partners have made to protect our environment.

There are lots of ways you can support River Alliance in our anniversary year. Renew your membership with an extra year-end donation. Businesses can become annual sponsors and support our events to rally support for Wisconsin’s water. Set a New Year’s resolution to paddle 30 miles of Wisconsin’s rivers or visit accessible piers or boat landings 30 times in 2023 and tag us in your social media photos. We want to see where you put your #OurWatersFuture sticker!

You are an essential part of Our Waters’ Future.


Show us your favorite river in the ninth annual River Alliance of Wisconsin photo contest!

Send us your inspiring photos that capture your love of Wisconsin’s water. Photo categories include animals, plants, people, landscapes, and threats to our rivers. Whether you’ve been taking photos for years or are a new shutterbug, send us high-resolution images of the places you love, and help us show more people how beautiful Wisconsin’s water life can be.

Deadline for submissions is November 15th. For rules, submission guidelines, and prizes, visit wisconsinrivers.org/photo-contest-2022.

Prize packages for photo category winners

Your choice of a River Rat t-shirt, a Browning headlamp and flashlight, or a Kavu sling bag plus a copy of Wisconsin’s Great Waters calendar while supplies last.

Grand prize package

St. Croix & Namekagon Rivers — The Enduring Gift, Souvenir Edition, signed by author Craig Blacklock, an Everyday Sling 5 camera/drone bag, and a copy of Wisconsin’s Great Waters calendar.

Thanks to Joe Shaffer, Craig Blacklock, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and annual business sponsor Fontana Sports for donating contest prizes.


Thank yous

River Alliance of Wisconsin thanks Shelly Gradwell-Brenneman and Willi Van Haren for their service on the Board of Directors. 

Shelly’s four years of thoughtful input ensured that we knew what was most important to support local river groups and rural and agricultural communities. 

In his six years on our board, Willi provided sound leadership, expertise, and vision. As treasurer from 2018 to 2021, he directly contributed to the success of River Alliance of Wisconsin in expanding our financial stability.  

Both Shelly and Willi were the priceless institutional memory for our board, and their impact on the protection of Wisconsin’s watersheds will ripple well into the future.



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