Madeline Magee on the past and future of Wisconsin’s climate

Dec 7, 2023 | Climate Change

For our last interview with a Wisconsin water champion in 2023, we wanted to round out our 30th anniversary year by getting some perspectives on climate change from Madeline Magee, who is a leader in the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ Office of Great Waters. She works on monitoring and resiliency efforts in the Great Lakes and particularly in the upper Mississippi River basin.

In this Q&A, Madeline describes what’s changed in our climate in the last 30 years, what she predicts will happen in the next 30 years, and what ways we can pull together to change, adapt, and take care of our communities in the face of a changing climate.

 

Q. What are the things that have changed in the last 30 years that have made the biggest impact on our water and changing climate?

A. I turned 35 this year, so “30 years” is pretty much my whole life. What I’ve learned is that while it’s hard to pinpoint one thing that has been a major shift in the last 30 years, we’ve reached a point where climate changes are happening outside of siloes.

We used to think about only pollution. Changes in farming meant more fertilization and degraded water quality. Then there was industrial pollution and changes to how we deal with waste. Then, over time, we’ve added climate changes on top of globalization and changes in where people live. We used to look at urban versus rural issues. But now all these silos are blending in our changing climate. Instead of considering one thing at a time, we need to think about how these things impact each other, like we do in the Mississippi basin. Increased globalization, industrialization, larger and more concentrated farms and a loss of family farms, all put more pressure on watersheds and our climate.

We have also learned more about the negative impacts of different chemicals, pollution sources, and practices. The threats haven’t changed, but we understand them more.

 

Madeline stands at the edge of a lake with her two children

Q. What can we expect in the next 30 years in a warmer, wetter climate?

A. We know the climate is going to get warmer. Even if we stopped emissions now we are committed to a certain amount of warming. We know how the increased warming will likely impact our waters.

Warmer temperatures will mean changes in species that are present in different rivers, streams and lakes. For instance, most likely if you live in southern Wisconsin, we will see species that are more common in Illinois. Northern Wisconsin will see species that are more common in southern Wisconsin. Species will creep farther north as temperatures change. We will see tree and plant species change, and we will lose some species of plants and animals. We will see more invasive species as non-native plants adapt to changing temperatures and push native species out.

This is important to our ecology, to be sure, but also to our culture as Wisconsinites. Outdoor recreation is just one thing that’s a cornerstone of who we are as Wisconsinites and fishing is one example of an activity that will most certainly change. In some areas of the state, we won’t be able to fish for the same species and in the same landscape in the future as we do today. An increase in air temperature will lead to a loss of ice cover in lakes. Ice fishing is a big thing to do in winter. If you went ice fishing with your grandpa, it might not be safe to do it with your kids if it’s not accessible.

This is more true for Indigenous tribes and their members. Walleye and wild rice (manoomin) that have high cultural significance won’t be distributed across the landscape in the same way and won’t be as available to future generations in the same way as older tribal members. You can learn more about this from the recently published Tribal Vulnerability Assessment from the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission.

We strongly suspect there will be changes in harmful algal blooms making it more difficult to safely recreate in some bodies of water, and may reduce how and how often people will access the water.

While we have climate research that considers an ensemble of prediction models that agree that temperatures will get warmer, it’s challenging to predict precipitation. When we do get rain events, they will be larger. It’s harder to predict whether we will have flooding in the spring, droughts in the summer, or if it will stay wetter all year around. It will all impact agriculture, how we manage and irrigate fields, what crops will grow, and how all of this impacts our rivers and lakes.

 

Madeline sits on an airboat while wearing a PFD and ear protection

Q. What needs to be done to build resilience to deal with those changes?

A. Building resilience to climate change needs to be as multi-pronged as the stressors that we are and will be experiencing. We need to approach it at a full-landscape level. Even if you live on one body of water, you need to think of impacts and solutions across the whole watershed.

When people work together, they can accomplish a lot. Someone who works at the county level in a conservation department or on a county board can make plans and policy changes. Someone who works for a government agency (like I do at the Department of Natural Resources) can ask how we can better manage our resources across a watershed to build resiliency. This is true for habitat projects, wetland restoration, transportation and roads, and even how we manage household purchases and food waste. You can’t expect one person or organization to fix everything, but we all can ask ourselves how we can use our roles to do something and work together toward mutually beneficial goals.

Sometimes we have conflicting goals or demands for a resource. A fishery manager and a transportation agency may have conflicting ideas for a stream and a culvert under a road, for example. But if they work together, they can agree that county road departments don’t want to replace roads every time there is a flood, and fisheries want a wider culvert for fish passage. They could work together and make a plan that is resilient to a changing climate. It’s win-win for everybody when you build relationships across sectors and come up with solutions that are creative and collaborative.

 

Madeline in a kayak on a very calm lake

Q. Are there examples of projects, changes or signs of progress in Wisconsin that are positive efforts to curb or deal with negative climate impacts? How can we give these efforts more support? 

A. I have three examples, though there are many more out there, plus a way of thinking about climate resilience.

First, the Wisconsin Wetlands Association has been working with Ashland County, the DNR, USGS, Northwest Regional Planning Commission, DOT, Superior Rivers Watershed Association, and Wisconsin Division of Emergency Management in northern Wisconsin on “slow the flow” projects. After the 2018 floods, the community saw huge road blowouts, flooding in streams, and large amounts of erosion. Their collaboration is focused on natural flood management projects to slow runoff and keep water on the land in a way that benefits the local ecology, infrastructure and human safety.

Second, Monroe County created a climate change task force which conducted a countywide assessment to identify climate readiness and solutions with an economic benefit. Like in Ashland, the upper Kickapoo River and La Crosse area suffered from major flooding events. Their plan looks across multiple sectors to find multiple benefits for safety, soil health, carbon sequestration, and other ways the whole watershed can have co-benefits from resilience efforts.

Finally, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District is doing long-term planning on how to keep water on the landscape by reducing runoff, increasing infiltration, increase carbon sequestration, and make the whole system more resilient to climate change all while paying attention to environmental justice and how the entire community is impacted by a changing climate. The District has an online hub with their sustainability plans, their reforestation and wetland restoration plans, and has worked with academics and advisors to analyze the region’s climate change vulnerability (PDF report) and assess progress on the District’s most important adaptation goals (PDF report).

As a way to think about the decisions we will have to make around climate change, I’ve been involved with a group on the Mississippi River basin that is using the RAD framework. RAD stands for Resist, Accept and Direct. Read more about the RAD framework and how it is being applied to the upper Mississippi River basin. Some changes we will want to resist as much as we can: protection of cultural resources, infrastructure, public safety. Other changes could be things we accept as a society, like choosing more adaptive tree species in our landscapes. Then there are some changes we won’t accept, but we will have to invest more to direct the ecosystem in a new direction in a more desirable condition. It’s a hard conversation to have when people have conflicting goals, but it’s a way for us to have a conversation about limited resources and what’s most important for all of us, together.

 

At the end of the day, I know that the topic of climate change can feel rather negative. But I see a lot of opportunities to do good work in our communities.

 

– Stacy Harbaugh, Communications Director

 

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