Pay to Play at Play in Wisconsin Waters

Sep 30, 2015 | Water Policy

Something stinks here and we don’t think it’s the swamp.

Last week, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel read a little like The Onion when it broke a story about a politically well-connected wealthy resident requesting permission from the DNR to anchor down a pesky floating bog in the Chippewa Flowage so it no longer annoys him. (He only wants to pound in fifty pilings, 15 feet high in a wilderness area, no biggie.) Just days prior to that story, the Journal Sentinel reported on a proposed sale of publicly-owned water frontage on Rest Lake to a — you guessed it — politically well-connected wealthy resident. Both stories point back to the same family, Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein, who have donated millions of dollars to our governor’s political campaigns.

We can’t help but wonder if there are dots to connect with a different dubious action we wrote about that was thrust into the state budget this summer by Senator Tom Tiffany. He introduced a motion to prevent the DNR from exercising their delegated authority to set water levels in Rest Lake that would consider the needs of the Manitowish River, which flows through Rest Lake, essentially to help out a few homeowners on one lake from having to take their docks out in winter. This came after the DNR had already started near-secret negotiations with the wealthy and well-connected Manitowish Waters Defense Fund. The negotiations would have perpetuated managing this public water as if it were a private lake. The DNR willfully ignored their own detailed analysis and recommendations to protect the Manitowish River.

As for the insider land deal, the Natural Resources Board (NRB) unanimously voted to table it until they take a closer look. (“This one sticks out in a lot of ways,” said NRB chair Preston Cole.) Examples like these two, and far too many others, smack of cronyism and of the state’s leadership advancing their friends’ interests above the well-being of all Wisconsin residents.

Now add to this the gutting of science at DNR (those hydrologists played a huge role in determining a sustainable water management plan for the Manitowish River) and the attempt to strip all oversight authority from the NRB (fortunately thwarted for now), and those dots we connect begin to reveal a frightening picture for the future of Wisconsin’s clean water and democracy: it’s all for sale at the right price.