Summer 2021 newsletter
Summer 2021 | Volume 27, Issue 2
Snapshot Day – Saturday, August 21
Help protect a river or lake near you. Volunteer in a statewide search for aquatic invasive species.
This one-day event provides a treasure trove of data to the Wisconsin DNR that guides future management plans. Previous Snapshot Days have led to the early detection of new invasive species and newly-impacted waterbodies.
The event is free for all ages and no prior experience is required. Snapshot Day is made possible by a partnership with the University of Wisconsin Extension and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
Summer is back and so are outdoor events!
July 16 – Friends of the Menominee River’s Water Celebration, noon – 7:00 p.m. Stephenson Island, Marinette
August 21 – AIS Snapshot Day, Statewide
August 29 – Fools Flotilla, Yahara River, Madison
October 2 – Baraboo RiverFest, 20th Anniversary of a free flowing Baraboo River, Baraboo
Visit our website for more information about each of these events.
Counties vote YES for clean water
by Allison Werner, Executive Director
In April Wisconsin voters in Marquette, Portage and Wood Counties showed their strong, bipartisan support for protecting our water. Thanks to the work of county board supervisors, water advocates and voters, we have numbers to show how much voters care about Wisconsin’s water.
The Clean Water Now referendum won a 73% yes vote in Marquette County, a 77% yes vote in Portage County, and a 76% yes vote in Wood County. These voters said YES to the referendum question on their ballot: 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?
The Clean Water Now referendum results give Wisconsin’s policy leaders even more evidence that clean water is a nonpartisan issue that voters across the state want them to address. For meaningful, holistic water protection, River Alliance of Wisconsin and our partners have solutions to manage Wisconsin’s water in a better way. The Wisconsin Water Agenda provides the framework to manage Wisconsin’s waters in a way that protects the health of people and the economy of the state now and for generations forward.
One example is our Clear Water Farm program. We are leading a forward-thinking discussion about what the future of agriculture looks like in Wisconsin. As my colleague Michael states in his article on page three, “we will have to continuously re-evaluate our sense of what it means for farming to be compatible with environmental protection.”
In the long term, Wisconsin’s state legislature needs to set policies that make clean water a right for all Wisconsinites. They must address the root causes of pollution and provide the tools to state and local agencies to tackle these difficult challenges. As the biennial state budget process comes to an end, legislators provided some support for issues we care about like funding for conservation practices for farmers. However, they fell far short on protecting the health of people and our environment in issues related to regulating PFAS chemicals, replacing lead pipes, and compensating families who have polluted drinking water wells.
You can help us continue to put referendum questions on Wisconsin ballots and give voters the chance to say YES to clean water in more counties in April 2022. Be a local leader and work with your county board to put a Clean Water Now referendum question on your ballot. Go to the get involved page at VoteForCleanWater.com and sign up to help.
I am honored to take on a leadership role at River Alliance to continue our important work of bringing people together to protect and restore our waters. We have had many
accomplishments during my 15 years with River Alliance and they all are due to the dedicated water advocates across the state and the equally dedicated River Alliance team. Our next chapter will be no different, it is by bringing people together from all across the state that have a shared interest in clean water that we will succeed.
Basin Governance: A better way to manage Wisconsin’s water
by Bill Davis, Senior Legal Analyst
As mentioned in the last Waterways, I am working on what it would look like to operationalize Watershed Governance, one of the twelve elements of the Wisconsin Water Agenda. Water does not respect political boundaries, and this causes problems. We need an approach that must be structured to work with the water cycle and within its limits.
The current way Wisconsin manages its water resources doesn’t have one entity that has a truly holistic view of our water. Our government agencies have different authorities and responsibilities to manage water through laws based on artificial distinctions between surface and groundwater, quantity versus quality, pollution sources (point and non-point sources), and we even have different jurisdictional authorities – from towns to cities, counties, state and federal roles – to manage water resources.
A better approach would be to build a new system to manage water as it exists and acts in nature: the watershed or basin approach. This would take into consideration water’s chemical, physical and biological properties, the interaction between land use and its effects on water, and the characteristics of natural hydrological systems. Basin governance would show us how not to use more water than the watershed can replenish, and we would not pass problems downstream or down gradient.
We want basin governance to be the front-line entity to manage all aspects of water to ensure the watershed – and all entities within that area – can all have plentiful water forever. This will require a new approach that considers cumulative impacts rather than individual uses of water in isolation.
Read more about the Wisconsin Water Agenda at wisconsinrivers.org/wisconsin-water-agenda
No Back Forty for now
by Allison Werner, Executive Director
The long saga of the Back Forty project continues. Recently, there has been cause for hope.
On May 11 Toronto-based Aquila Resources announced they would end their appeal of the denial of their wetland permit, a decision made by Judge Pulter in January 2021. They also announced they would not proceed with the contested case of their amended mining permit from Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE).
However, Aquila also stated that they plan to resubmit ALL of their permit applications to EGLE by the end of 2021. Aquila is conducting a new feasibility study that will include an underground mine. They have talked about an underground mine in publications to shareholders, though it was not in their past permit applications. An underground mine is expected to be a part of their new permit applications.
Then on June 1 Aquilla announced it has entered into a non-binding letter of intent to sell its interest in the Bend and Reef exploration properties in Taylor and Marathon counties to a private company called “Newco.” Aquila President & CEO Guy Le Bel commented, “we are very pleased to have reached an agreement in principle to monetize our non-core Wisconsin assets. The Transaction provides Aquila with immediate cash without diluting Aquila shareholders. It also provides us with meaningful upside exposure to an exciting new exploration focused company with the resources to explore the Bend and Reef properties as Aquila focuses on the development of Back Forty.” This smells of a shell game to find cash for a struggling exploration company.
All of these events have mining opponents, including River Alliance, cautiously optimistic, but no one is letting their guard down. As always, we are grateful to the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, Coalition to SAVE the Menominee River and the many other groups and advocates that have spent years fighting this proposal and who are prepared to continue fighting.
Friends of the Menominee River will host a Water Celebration event on Friday, July 16 from noon – 6:00 p.m. Connect with the coalition at JoinTheRiverCoalition.org.
Why sustainable vs regenerative farming makes a difference to protecting Wisconsin’s water
by Michael Tiboris, Clear Water Farms Director
When people think of what Wisconsin looks like, chances are they think of pristine lakes and rivers threaded through the Northwoods. Or maybe they think of farmland—green fields, black earth, dotted with red barns and spotted cows. These two parts, which sit so naturally together in people’s minds and our state’s identity, are in a great deal of tension.
Agriculture generates more than $104 billion annually in the state and accounts for more than 11% of the state’s employment. But it also produces the majority of the water pollution—especially excess plant nutrients—which impair aquatic ecosystems and are a public health hazard.
For both economic and cultural reasons there’s a strong desire to keep farming in Wisconsin, so the hope has been to find a way to make environmental health and agriculture compatible. “Conservation agriculture,” “sustainable agriculture” and “regenerative agriculture” are all used to describe this.
Through considering these buzzwords, we can understand different ways Wisconsinites work to make farming more compatible with environmental goals.
People often think of “conservation” in terms of a practice operating so as not to deplete the resource base upon which it depends. If farming is sustainable with respect to its soil or water on this definition, it means that the way the farming is done does not reduce the soil’s function and the water’s quality and availability.
Taken on its face, this is a pretty narrow idea—limited to making efficient use of existing resources in order to prevent farming from undermining its own productivity. It’s “conservation” in the classic sense of not using up too much of a thing too quickly so that we can continue to use it over time.
This framing, however, seems to make sustainable agriculture compatible with significant environmental harms. A farm can protect its own soil fertility and water quality while still practicing mostly conventional tillage and losing lots of nutrients to groundwater. But this isn’t generally what people mean by sustainable agriculture anymore, if they ever did.
“Sustainable agriculture” was meant to capture the idea that what counts as efficient depends on our aims and values. For instance, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition defines the idea as making the most efficient use of non-renewable resources while satisfying human food needs, “enhancing” environmental quality, making farms profitable, and improving people’s quality of life.
There is disagreement about what it means to satisfy human needs and improve quality of life (which needs? Whose?) or what sort of environmental quality we want (better? Relative to pre-settlement?). It’s also unclear that they don’t have their own internal conflicts (can we have economically viable farms and enhance environmental quality under current market conditions?).
Sustainable agriculture necessarily brings up these value questions. We’d all prefer for science to simply recommend the most efficient strategies to reduce nutrient loss to groundwater. But sustainability is always relative to a view about what the efficiency is for, so we must wade into these discussions to know what sustainable agriculture means.
From one perspective the idea of “regenerative agriculture” is just an extension of sustainable agriculture in that it suggests farming should aim to restore the biological function and health of the land and water, not merely prevent it from getting worse. To make the distinction clearer, consider that we might be able to achieve sustainable agriculture largely through engineering.
For example, we could capture and treat contaminated water from farms while engineering seeds that have fewer chemical input needs. But we couldn’t achieve regenerative agriculture this way since it depends on restoring more natural functions of the soil and water by farming.
Sustainable agriculture aims to make farming compatible with environmental health.
Regenerative agriculture aims to make farming the engine of that compatibility. Sustainable agriculture preferences changes that make agriculture less impactful on the environment. Regenerative agriculture preferences changes that make agriculture more impactful on the environment.
Currently the most common approaches to regenerative agriculture are framed in terms of soil health. They include minimal disturbance of the soil by not plowing it (no-till), improving crop diversity, adding continuous living plant cover on all fields, and integrating livestock into cropping systems through managed grazing. All of these are designed to let the soil function more normally and build its own nutrient management systems.
Does this Matter?
Whatever we call it, sustainable or regenerative, the actual practices currently being asked of farmers are roughly similar. They both center on field practices to make the soil healthier and reduce runoff. The most apparent difference between them is a disagreement about why we’re trying to change how farming works.
And this difference is significant. Regenerative farming might be aimed at much more than just soil health. It could include, for instance, rebuilding the local food systems destroyed by global commodities markets, or reinvesting in rural communities to make farming more achievable for families who want to practice these principles. It may well include restoring equity in agricultural policy that has systematically excluded indigenous farmers and people of color.
The reality is that we do not have a single shared ideal yet, and that’s okay. In thinking this through, we will have to continuously re-evaluate our sense of what it means for farming to be compatible with environmental protection. Sustainable for whom? Regenerative to what end?
These are big questions, but given how central both farming and nature are to Wisconsin’s soul, they’re worth serious reflection.
Ty Tretter is tackling aquatic invasive species in La Crosse
by Ellen Voss, Aquatic Invasive Species Program Director
While University of Wisconsin–La Crosse sophomore Ty Tretter pursues an undergraduate degree in geography with an emphasis in environmental science, he will also serve as the River Alliance’s aquatic invasive species intern this summer. Ty has always had a love for the outdoors and is excited to use his passion and communication skills to spread the word about AIS prevention in Wisconsin’s Driftless region and along the Mississippi River in the greater La Crosse area.
Ty’s primary focus will be on sharing AIS prevention tips while conducting Clean Boats Clean Waters watercraft inspections at boat landings to educate boaters on how and where AIS are most likely to hitch a ride.
His additional duties will be helping out with our other AIS prevention campaigns including Landing Blitz, Drain Campaign, the Bait Dealer Initiative, Project Riverine Early Detectors and Snapshot Day. Ty will also help Aquatic Invasive Species Director Ellen Voss with AIS monitoring and control efforts and help educate tournament anglers about the threats of AIS at major fishing tournaments on the Mississippi River.
The Big Share was a big success
by Karen Anderson, Development Director
Thank you so much for your generosity during The Big Share in March! You jumped in to protect clean and abundant water. Because of you, River Alliance raised a grand total of $25,928 for Wisconsin’s waters!!!
Your tremendous support will help empower people to protect and restore Wisconsin’s waters. You’re supporting our statewide work to offer training for watershed groups, invasive species management, water-policy watchdogging and innovative agricultural water stewardship.These actions make it possible for people all across the state to make their plans to explore, protect and enjoy Wisconsin’s rivers and lakes.
Thank you for giving for our waters as you explore, enjoy, and protect them this year. We have lots of exciting work ahead towards clean, abundant water. And we know we can do it together.
A special thank you to Scott Weigle and an anonymous donor through Madison Community Foundation for providing a match so donations doubled their impact! Staff, board, and water advocates connected with their networks to invite new members into River Alliance on this day. Welcome new members!
Our team appreciates your support! Save the date for the Big Share next year, March 1, 2022.
You make the best plans to visit Wisconsin rivers this summer. During The Big Share, we asked fellow paddlers about their summer goals.
Katina from De Pere said:
“My goal of paddling more than 1000 miles this year will first begin with a source to mouth ‘warm-up’ trip on the 200-mile long Fox River, the one that originates as a stream northeast of Pardeeville flowing north past my house in De Pere, where it decants into the bay of Green Bay. In 2019, I thru-paddled the Wisconsin River Centennial Canoe Trail from source to mouth and that piques my interest about the possibility of doing the same for the historic river I see every single day outside my front door.”
Tom, Lowery Creek, Driftless said:
“I started documenting Lowery Creek last fall and will continue working on that from its headwaters to the mouth. My plan will then move to the wonderful Lower Wisconsin River which I will paddle as I document its rich diversity.”
Stacy Harbaugh, Communications Director
Stacy brings over 15 years of communications experience, including translating complicated legal and policy issues into engaging stories that inspire action. Hiking and enjoying Wisconsin’s waters are among her favorite activities, along with spinning vintage polka tunes on vinyl. Please join us in welcoming Stacy to the River Alliance team!
We are always grateful for the time and dedication our colleagues chose to give River Alliance. Raj, Danika and Melonie left their mark here as we know they will do in their new roles.
Raj Shukla – River Alliance is indebted to Raj for bringing the organization through three economic downturns, building bigger and better strategies for the future, and recruiting a top-notch team of professional staff! He led the organization boldly and with humor. We look forward to continuing to work with Raj in his new role as The Nature Conservancy’s Midwest Director for Freshwater Policy.
Danika Laine – In her time at River Alliance Danika redesigned our website and helped make many campaigns successful including Clear Water Now, and Protect the Willow’s mining referendum victory.We will miss her puns and banana jokes! We look forward to seeing where her new life’s journey takes her. We know she will continue to do great things.
Melonie Wright – We are grateful for the spark of energy Melonie brought in her role as our Digital Marketing Assistant. We wish her all the best with her photography business, mizzmedia Productions.
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