Former Executive Director Todd Ambs reflects on River Alliance’s 30th anniversary

Aug 10, 2023 | River:30

From 1998 to 2002, Todd Ambs served as the Executive Director of River Alliance of Wisconsin. Before his recent retirement, Todd was the Deputy Secretary of the DNR. 

He has had many career achievements including being the lead negotiator for the State of Wisconsin during the development of the Great Lakes Compact, serving as a Senior Policy Analyst for the Wisconsin Department of Justice, and running the Water Division for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for nearly a decade.

For our 30th anniversary, we spoke with Todd to gather his reflections on the unique role River Alliance of Wisconsin plays in the work to restore and protect Wisconsn’s water. You can also read highlights of our interview with other past executive directors, Raj Shukla and Denny Caneff

Raj Shukla, Denny Caneff and Todd Ambs pose for a photo


Looking back, what do you think is the accomplishment you’re most proud of during your time at River Alliance?

It’s hard to narrow down to one thing. I’m proud of how we expanded our budget and staff, built a great board, and found a niche for our statewide river group to do work on projects like Federal Energy Regulatory Commission relicensing of hydropower dams and our work to advocate for the removal of dams that are obsolete and uneconomical.

One great story is how we got a line item in the state budget to establish grants for river groups. At the time, the legislature was split between a Democratic Senate and a Republican Assembly, plus we had Tommy Thompson as our Governor. To get something through the legislature and signed by the governor, we needed more than a 9-7 vote by the Joint Finance Committee. It was going to take a big lobbying effort to make our case to legislators. We knew we were getting somewhere when Senator Rob Cowles told us to “stop sending faxes! I’m voting for it!”

Tony Kubek New York YankeesThe crowning achievement of that work was when we brought out our secret weapon: Tony Kubek. Everyone knew who Tony Kubek was. The starting shortstop for the New York Yankees in the 1960s was from Appleton and moved back here when he retired from sports and broadcasting. Tony loved Wisconsin’s rivers. Big paddling guy. He joined our board and came with us to testify to the legislature about the need to fund river groups. Legislators – especially the older legislators – were so excited to meet him. It would be like if Lebron James came to testify today.

We met with Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen at the Capitol. Scott was a huge baseball fan and had a one year-old son. Tony talked a bit about what we were trying to accomplish and handed Scott a signed photo for his son. Before the Joint Finance Committee resumed, the Speaker sent word to the Assembly Republican committee members that they would all be supporting River Alliance’s river grants program. That’s how it passed unanimously and local river restoration groups got funds for technical support. Some of those funds were taken away during Governor Walker’s years, but there are still groups around today that exist because of the help of those capacity building grants and River Alliance’s support. 


What is the one thing you think River Alliance does well that is unique among environmental or social justice organizations?

River Alliance is good at being a facilitator or convenor of clean water advocates. Back in 2001 and 2002, there was a huge lobbying effort around new rules for polluted runoff. There was an advisory committee in a joint effort between the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. It was very contentious with the Farm Bureau, realtors and developers on one side and conservation groups on the other.

We put together a coalition of groups that hired someone to coordinate the campaign for the conservation organizations. We were trusted to be the fiduciary agent with funds from the Mott Foundation. We had some success advocating for good nonpoint pollution rules in 2002 and the joint project was a step forward.

Todd accepts an award from Mel Volbrecht


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. 

Another myth is that people who care about rivers are only treehuggers or fanatical paddlers. The truth is that when a river runs through your town, there is a special attachment people have to that water because they live there. They might not show up to weekly commission meetings or legislative hearings, but there truly is broad support for clean water and healthy rivers, which are the DNA of a community. 


Other thoughts about River Alliance’s 30th anniversary?

River Alliance can do this work because it has a reputation for focusing on the “politics of the possible.” We form alliances with a broad range of people and organizations. And to give (former executive director) Denny Caneff and (former policy director) Helen Sarakinos credit, they created many events centered around the simple premise that the River Alliance has FUN. From Fools’ Flotilla to paddling trips and events around the state, we remind people why rivers are worth protecting. Rivers are fun, and it’s fun to do stuff in and around them.

It’s remarkable what River Alliance has done over the last 30 years. It was started when the national River Network worked to start statewide groups all over the country. Many of those organizations don’t exist anymore, but Wisconsin’s statewide river group continues to be effective today. River Alliance is focused on its core mission as a voice for rivers in a state that has an incredible variety and beauty and splendor of water. It’s a part of a great legacy for our state.

– Stacy Harbaugh, Communications Director


This message is made possible by generous donors who believe people have the power to protect and restore water.

Help River Alliance of Wisconsin celebrate our 30th anniversary! Support our work with your contribution today or take the River:30 pledge to spend more time with Wisconsin’s rivers this year.