Sue Nelson champions clean water in Green County
Sue Nelson serves as the District 10 representative on the Green County Board of Supervisors serving the communities of Cadiz, Browntown and the southern portion of Jordan. She also serves on the ag & extension, health, land & water conservation, and land use & zoning committees.
Sue hadn’t planned on running for local office. But when asked, she discovered that it was a chance to be as effective as she could to advocate for the well-being of her community. She was a champion of the Clean Water Now advisory referendum question and fellow Green County voters approved the statement by the largest margin in the November 2022 elections.
Why did you decide to run for public office?
I was asked to run. I attended a meeting because Kriss Marion (who serves on the board of River Alliance of Wisconsin) was speaking and I always wanted to meet her. She approached me about running for office. It wasn’t in my dream of dreams, but she planted the seed.
Kriss invited me to meet with her and learn the basics about what to expect when running for office. I also had a friend who serves on a county board and I spoke with her. They are both people who I respect and who are really competent. Talking with them helped me understand why women are needed in government. We need different eyes and ears, and they said I could do it. I thought this was a chance for me to have some skin in the game, and to have a chance to be as effective as I could be for my community.
What are the top clean water challenges in your area?
The biggest challenges we have all really come down to education. Many people don’t know how their individual actions affect water. It could be something like someone rinsing a paint can on the curbside. It’s hard to get the word out about how to protect water. Local government can try to educate people with printed materials, newspaper articles, radio, social media, but it all takes funding.
The other challenge is a “not our problem” or “someone will take care of it and fix things” either at the source or at the end of a problem. I’d rather not have to try to fix pollution problems at the end, so that’s another part of the education piece.
You championed adding the Clean Water Now advisory referendum to Green County ballots in the fall of 2022. Why did you support asking voters this question, and why do you think the question was so successful in your county?
I wanted to have the Clean Water Now question on ballots because I wanted to get people to think about this. Clean water is not just magic that comes out of a faucet. You have to really think about where water comes from.
I heard from people who responded to this, like other non binding referendums, “what difference does it make?” This is an option to have voices heard by our state legislature. Coming from a county versus an individual should carry more weight.
I also heard from farmers when I introduced getting the referendum on the ballot. They had a concern about whether it was a “gotcha” question for them, or for anyone with water resources on their property and if they would have to do something different with their property. Fortunately we have three farmer-led watershed groups and a strong citizen-led group in Green County. There are a fair amount of people who recognize the value of water for all of us.
Overall we got a very positive response in Green County. A friend said “that’s a no-brainer. Who doesn’t want clean water?” We can agree on wanting clean water, but we also have to ask ourselves what we’re going to have to do about it.
What is working well in Green County for water protection?
I get to learn a lot about what’s happening in Green County through my role on the land and water committee. We learn about things like how efficiently the county is tackling proper well abandonment procedures. If a water well isn’t used for three years, it’s filled with bentonite (clay) and sealed. It’s one step that’s beneficial to protecting groundwater quality. But is it in the public eye? Maybe there’s a small blurb in the newspaper, but not everyone gets the paper. It’s still one of the positive things the county land and water staff are doing for water protection.
I’d like to do more to build my relationships with farmer-led groups. It’s important to see the work they are doing and listen to what they are up against. There are good partnerships among people who are doing local stream bank restoration work along with NRCS and the DNR. I recently took a farm tour to view restoration work that had been completed on Dougherty and Skinner/Bushnell Creeks. I swear it’s like you can almost see that those streams were happier.
You’re also a leader in agriculture, including your work with the Soil Sisters organization. Tell me more about what your priorities are for equity and justice in environmental work.
I’m very inspired by the work the Soil Sisters are doing. We live out in the country, and while we’re not farmers or gardeners like many of these women are, I can still get involved and learn about what we can do with our land. Soil Sisters has opened the door to more sources of information about how we can plant crops, rent out our land to sustainable growers, and work with others to plant and harvest food. Networking through Soil Sisters and the friendships that have been developed, there are so many things I would never have had the opportunity to experience were it not for this group of women. The network of women is very empowering.
I am also involved with the MultiCultural Outreach Program (a nonprofit that helps families in Grant, Green, Iowa, Lafayette & Richland Counties) that for the most part services Spanish-speaking folks wherever they are from. I don’t speak Spanish myself, but I got involved because I thought I could liaison with my role in the county board. We shared Clean Water Now posters in Spanish for voters in the English as a second language group as a way to show that they were a part of this community.
Are you optimistic for Wisconsin’s water future? Why or why not?
I am optimistic. I am becoming more aware about water issues. I hope to make others more aware which I think can become contagious. The more you talk about something, the more people can no longer ignore it. I’m becoming more informed and empowered to talk about it too. I look forward to being a part of more people understanding our environment, our climate, and the need to protect our water.
Where do you like to paddle (or what is your favorite way to enjoy Wisconsin’s waters) and why?
I like to fish. I’m happy to even just sit on the shoreline or in a boat, fishing or not. It’s my dream to get out and kayak more. It started during COVID, but even last year for my birthday we started making a route of state and county parks. We’d take a day to visit a destination. Last year our end point north was Wildcat Mountain. It was gorgeous. I’d love to go again.
– Stacy Harbaugh, Communications Director
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