Fall 2023 newsletter
Enjoy River Alliance of Wisconsin’s Fall 2023 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.
Summer 2023 | Volume 29, Issue 3
Save the dates – volunteers welcome
Visit River Alliance’s booths at Canoecopia
March 8-10 Alliant Energy Center, Madison
Wild & Scenic Film Festival
Thursday, March 21 Barrymore Theatre, Madison
30 years of supporting water protection at the local level
by Allison Werner, Executive Director
This issue of WaterWays focuses on local watershed protection organizations. Local groups are the usually small-but-mighty organizations that have formed to protect rivers, lakes, and watersheds.
Our work with local groups is near and dear to my heart. My first role with River Alliance of Wisconsin in 2006 was the Local Group Director. Over the years, I have had the pleasure of working with so many inspirational people who dedicate their time and energy to stewarding the waters of Wisconsin. If you’re reading this newsletter, chances are you are one of them. Thank you.
I have learned so much about our state and water issues from Wisconsin’s water champions, and it’s been fun looking back at River Alliance’s 30 years of partnerships and victories to see the impact of our work.
More recently, we added farmer-led councils to our local group family. These councils also work to protect our waters and have organizational needs that are similar to those of our traditional local groups. We are focused on supporting the farmer-led councils that take a watershed-wide approach and collaborate with local groups and local governments in their region. As a statewide organization, we count on these local groups to be the front lines of protection for their home waters. Our role is to support them through training, coaching, and networking.
Our new five-year strategic plan renews our focus on group engagement. We will work to establish relationships in new communities and deepen relationships in existing communities – especially marginalized communities that face systemic barriers to resources, access to clean/safe water, and the clean water movement.
In the future, we will also focus even more on climate resilience and a sustainable food system. River Alliance will continue to collaborate with local watershed protection organizations, farmer-led councils working on regenerative agriculture, and dam removal/hydropower reform advocates so that our interconnected waters will be clean for this generation and the next. As always, there is a lot of work to do, but we are prepared to work collaboratively to take action.
We’re halfway through our 30th anniversary year, and we have a lot to be grateful for.
It’s been wonderful to see the folks who have taken the River:30 pledge spending more time with Wisconsin’s waters. Some have pledged to visit 30 bodies of water in our state. Some are hiking along 30 miles of shoreline. Others are determined to catch 30 fish, while some folks are planning to simply enjoy 30 minutes of a sunset over their favorite summer lake. How folks interpret the River:30 pledge is up to them, but it’s ultimately about the decision to have a direct experience with the water people have worked to protect for generations and knowing that our future completely depends on clean, abundant water.
We have spent a lot of time looking forward into River Alliance’s future. We dove deep into a strategic planning exercise that will guide our actions for the next five years. We had discussions with our staff, board, and friends who offered their insights into what River Alliance can uniquely offer. You can expect us to dig deeper into local group engagement, climate resilience, state and local policies, new community-centric ways of building support for clean water, and diversifying our board, staff, and supporters.
While we continue to experience a political logjam and a deep partisan divide on the legislative front, your demands for action on PFAS have been heard. Now our state leaders need to improve the proposed PFAS legislation so it truly makes progress for water protection. Read on for an update from Bill Davis on what we gained and what we lost in the state budget negotiations, including how those decisions affect our ability to organize on a county-by-county level to put Clean Water Now advisory referendums on voters’ ballots. That work will shift gears in the future.
As always, the best way to keep in touch is by subscribing to our Word on the Stream e-newsletter to get news, event invitations, action alerts, and inspiring stories.
Former Executive Directors reflect on 30 years of water protection
By Stacy Harbaugh, Communications Director
We recently spoke with some of our former executive directors and asked them to share their highlights of River Alliance of Wisconsin’s 30 years of clean water advocacy.
Based on your experience at River Alliance, what do you think is the biggest myth about community organizing, and how can people find success in water protection despite that myth?
It’s really true that you have to have a core group of people who really own whatever the issue is that they care about and care about it so fervently that they will not let it go. They may need help and guidance. That’s where River Alliance comes in. But we can look to examples of dam removals in Merrill or the Shopiere dam on Turtle Creek to see how a handful of local people faced very strong opposition to removing a dam, but they knew it was the right thing to do, and they fought to make it happen.
– Todd Ambs served as Executive Director from 1998 to 2002
What is the one thing you think River Alliance does well that is unique among environmental or social justice organizations?
River Alliance’s work getting clean water referendums on county ballots jumps out right away. No one else is doing that, and it is a good niche for the River Alliance, given your history and capacity. A county referendum on the ballot and passed would seem to open a door for organizing in those counties where a committed group of citizens has emerged to take on some local – and I emphasize local – battle. Influencing the legislature on the environment is a fool’s errand. But county government has a lot of responsibility for conservation, and county government is so much more accessible and less intimidating to citizens.
– Denny Caneff served as Executive Director from 2003 to 2016
Looking back, what do you think is the accomplishment you’re most proud of during your time at River Alliance?
I’m proud of the work we did to support the Menominee Tribe and local organizations to beat back the Back 40 mine. That effort combined a lot of the magic of River Alliance. River Alliance had been tracking developments with the mining proposal. We increased our support for the local coalition and particularly the Menominee Tribe who had been leading on the issue, but not often heard by the statewide environmental community. We put resources into the campaign, interviewed leaders, pushed earned and paid media, and did polling on sulfide mining, all to elevate the issue statewide.
Working together, we successfully slowed down the mine proposal, and while there was plenty of luck involved, the effort was special because we recognized that we weren’t alone. One of the best outcomes was when former Menominee Tribal Chairman Gary Besaw joined our board and became one of the architects of the Wisconsin Water Agenda.
– Raj Shukla served as Executive Director from 2016 to 2020
Wisconsin is a Water State
Renew your support for River Alliance of Wisconsin and make a statement about your love for our clean water state. This year’s supporter sticker is perfect for your bumper or boat.
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Then and now, grassroots power protects Wisconsin’s water
By Stacy Harbaugh, Communications Director and Allison Werner, Executive Director
Thirty years ago, there was a need for rivers and streams to be protected by passionate advocates who were willing to speak up for clean water. A professor and a graduate student got funding to build a statewide river network. In 1993, the first board of directors of a statewide river group called Wisconsin’s River Alliance met on October 1.
They believed then, as we do today, that while there is a strong need for a statewide organization dedicated to river protection, the best way to promote the health of our rivers and streams is through building local river and watershed organizations.
Strong grassroots leaders can be very successful in organizing around clean water. River Alliance aids their success by providing technical support, legal advice, and a network of resourceful people so that grassroots organizations can build on their own power.
Big wins still echo today
One of our first major efforts involved being a voice for rivers when century-old dams began to fail. Wisconsin’s rivers have thousands of dams. Each one has a history, and many create problems.
Dam removal success stories are due to the persistence of groups like the Baraboo River Canoe Club who worked hard to overcome their communities’ doubts and opposition to change when planning for dam removal. River Alliance served as a catalyst for a Baraboo River fish passage demonstration project, raised funds, and facilitated collaboration amongst stakeholders. The last of four dams was removed in 2001, making it the longest river restored through dam removal in the Midwest. Now the Friends of the Baraboo River steward a free-flowing river that provides the city a valuable resource in flood protection, economic redevelopment, recreation, scenic beauty, and ecological life.
Innovative aquatic invasive species monitoring and prevention programs like Project RED and Snapshot Day have been effective ways for volunteers to monitor waterways in their own communities and share information with the Department of Natural Resources. These programs grew and are now being led and sustained by the Water Action Volunteers and UW-Madison Division of Extension. Groups like Friends of Badfish Creek, Rock River Coalition, Upper Sugar River Watershed Association, Wild Rivers Conservancy, and many others recruit volunteers each year and contribute to the ongoing success of these programs. These programs are a lasting legacy of how we built successful monitoring programs to train volunteers and are hugely beneficial to the DNR as well as the health of our waters.
Regulations for controlling pollution and limiting groundwater overpumping have been a constant source of debate at our state capitol. Local advocates have called River Alliance for support and advice when companies like Perrier or large-scale farms want to use high-capacity wells to drain groundwater resources for profit. In 2002, River Alliance was deeply involved in the adoption of state rules to reduce polluted runoff from all sources, including farms. We helped form the Central Sands Water Action Coalition to advocate for protection of our waters from overpumping of high capacity wells. In 2010, we had a hand in the passage of new rules limiting phosphorus pollution from cities, industries, and agriculture.
There has never been a metallic mine that didn’t pollute, and local communities won’t consent to allowing mining that causes long-term damage to our water. We’ve been proud to be a convener and a resource to community and tribal coalitions that worked to oppose mining projects in Crandon, the Penokee Hills, and along the Menominee River. We support the work of the Coalition to SAVE the Menominee and facilitate the Wolf River Mining Action Coalition.
Pollution from agricultural land has been a long-standing water quality challenge in Wisconsin. We’ve advocated for stronger legislation, convened summits, and worked collaboratively to develop watershed plans to prioritize the areas making the biggest impact on our waters. More recently, we have been supporting several farmer-led councils like the Eau Pleine Partnership for Integrated Conservation and Sauk Soil and Water Improvement Group that are working on a watershed scale to improve water quality.
Building capacity from the grassroots up
At the core of all of this work is the capacity building support we provide to groups. This is usually behind-the-scenes work and isn’t as splashy as making headlines for dam removal or stopping mining, but it is essential to accomplish our mission.
Volunteers who lead local water protection groups rarely get involved because they love creating bylaws, policies, procedures, and strategic plans. River Alliance provides training, coaching, and support to help groups focus their precious time and resources in the most effective ways possible and stay in the good graces of the IRS and State of Wisconsin. We’ve held conferences, workshops, and gatherings both in person and online to strengthen existing grassroots groups or help launch organizations like Petenwell and Castle Rock Stewards and Lake Wisconsin Alliance.
As we look into the future, we’ve rededicated our commitment to local group engagement in our new strategic plan. Our goal now, as it was when we formed in 1993, is to help groups recognize and build their own power.
Listening to leaders to build a vision for a better food system
By Mike Tiboris, Clear Water Farms Director
In September, the Wisconsin Agriculture Agenda Core Team took a big step toward its mission to provide new policy directions out of our broken food system. Since January, River Alliance has convened meetings of this group to discuss the concrete steps we could take to generate a food system that has water protection as one of its products.
The kind of food system we’d want to have produces healthy, affordable food that is sustainably produced and gives farmers who practice conservation a good living. The one we have now does none of these things and leaves us with poorer public health, threats to our water, and serious financial challenges for farmers who choose not to use the most damaging practices. The approaches we’ve long taken to making agriculture consistent with a healthy environment are inadequate to the task.
The team we assembled of more than a dozen thought leaders from across Wisconsin’s food system has helped us clarify the top policy issues that need to change for us to repair the food system itself. They have identified several novel policy changes to consider on issues spanning farm loan financing, the way large institutions buy food, and even rural health care policy. Soon, we will start to release policy guidance on these areas that is informed by the Core Team’s leadership and conversations with other key stakeholders. Stay tuned for a new agenda for agriculture in Wisconsin.
Passing the paddle: Hydropower dams and river restoration
By Stacy Harbaugh, Communications Director
For the last 18 years, Jim Fossum has been a quiet but essential expert working to be a voice for rivers, recreation, and riverine wildlife as River Alliance of Wisconsin’s hydroelectric dam consultant.
When the time came for hydropower dams’ federal license renewals, Fossum brought his deep experience in federal service – having served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War and as a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for 26 years – to the process. His role has been to monitor dam licenses, negotiate for improvements from small recreational access points to major fish passage projects, and advocate for funding to be used to enhance the natural spaces that are important to Wisconsinites.
“In the future, if there is a big push to allow dams to operate in a hydro peaking mode so they can produce more electricity, it would be very destructive to a river,” said Fossum. “The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission could face a lot of pressure to do that. But this is why we need groups like River Alliance and local organizations to be involved in the relicensing process. Maximizing power generation at the expense of a river’s health would be very harmful for the environment. It’s a long haul, but the more river advocates we have, the better.”
Though Jim is retiring this year, he has been mentoring River Alliance’s Ellen Voss on the relicensing process. Her science and advocacy background will be an asset to River Alliance’s climate resiliency work. Read more about Jim Fossum’s work with River Alliance on our blog.
Three dates to save to support River Alliance of Wisconsin
By Karen Anderson, Development Director
Tuesday, November 28 – Giving Tuesday
Many River Alliance supporters pick Giving Tuesday to begin their year-end charitable giving. We welcome your gift or even a quick act of support by sharing a social media post to tell your friends about our mission to protect Wisconsin’s clean water.
Sunday, December 31 – last day of 2023 charitable giving
Whether you opt to donate through your IRA qualified charitable distribution, donor advised fund, gift of stock, or with a check or online gift, we welcome your support before the end of December.
Tuesday, March 5 – The Big Share
Community Shares of Wisconsin member nonprofits will join together for our tenth annual day of giving. The Big Share is a fast-paced marathon of fundraising for groups that work for environmental and social justice. Online donations start at just five dollars.
We’re looking for donors who can pitch in early so we can offer another successful dollar-for-dollar match. In Madison, will be partnering with Delta Beer Lab and Rutabaga Paddlesports to build momentum in early 2024. Can you be a volunteer? Sign up to help with events and we’ll be in touch.
River Alliance of Wisconsin donors receive our triennial member newsletter by mail. To become a member, donate online.
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