Friday, 30 May 2003

MADISON, Wis.

We have had some rain this week, enough to add about 15 gallons more to the rain barrel. There is something very satisfying about peering beneath the barrel lid after a storm to take stock of the latest “harvest.” This barrel enables me to irrigate “off the grid” between rains, rather than drawing from the municipal water supply. And the untreated water is said to be better for plants. Using rain barrels is also a way to help slow and redirect urban stormwater runoff, countering the tendency for water to flow directly from downspouts to storm sewers.

Kathy and Chuck Steudel at their favorite secret fishing hole.

Photo: Chuck Steudel.

Wisconsin is blessed with more than 44,000 miles of rivers and about 15,000 lakes. Even living in a Great Lakes state, where water has historically been thought of as unlimited, we have come to realize that we can’t take water quality — or quantity — for granted. Luna Leopold said, “Water is the most critical resource issue of our lifetime and our children’s lifetime. The health of our waters is the principal measure of how we live on the land.” In fact, the United Nations has proclaimed 2003 the International Year of Freshwater.

In the 1990s, a major bottler, Perrier, sought to withdraw large volumes of water from central Wisconsin, to the dismay of many local communities. (Check out a Grist article on this.) The citizens were rightly concerns that unregulated withdrawal of large volumes of water can have adverse effects on groundwater and surface waters. Recognizing that these issues are likely to become more commonplace, the River Alliance has spent the last couple of years talking them over with agriculture interests, university scientists, and other partners. Thanks in part to this important dialogue between diverse interests, Wisconsin hopes to enact groundwater quantity legislation soon.

As I mentioned earlier, there’s no way to keep work separate from the rest of life when your job concerns rivers. I think about them at work, swim in them, fish them, paddle them, read about them, and dream about them. River reading is another activity that ranks high on my list of fun homework. One book currently on my nightstand is River Life: The Natural and Cultural History of a Northern River, by John Bates. Bates, a writer, naturalist, and guide based in Wisconsin, is, to me, the voice of northern rivers. His clear writing and captivating descriptions of natural phenomena command respect for our waters and their inhabitants.

Also in the “fun homework” category, I recently had the opportunity to take a fly-tying class. Shortly thereafter, I purchased my first flyrod. A couple of generous flyfisher friends have offered lessons, and I look forward to joining them on the water this season. During college, I discovered entomology. What began as a required course quickly became a fascination that will captivate me for the rest of my days. Fishing is, for me, an opportunity to combine an interest in aquatic entomology with a respect and appreciation for fish and a love of water.

The River Alliance’s Diana Toledo leads a workshop for the Token Creek Watershed Association.

Photo: Lisa Goodman.

At present, there are more than 100 community-based river and watershed organizations active in Wisconsin, and 600 to 700 lake associations. There are also many chapters of Trout Unlimited, countless sporting organizations, and a growing number of land trusts. To me, these groups embody the idea that “just plain folks” can make a difference. By getting involved in causes like river conservation, they are effecting change for future generations. As one of our board members says, “I do this work for my grandson’s fish.”

I serve northern Wisconsin. When I’m at my desk or on the road, one of the messages that comes across loud and clear is a sense of urgency. The challenge is to protect rivers from degradation and unplanned development. Without a doubt, we will continue to see greater development in northern Wisconsin. Lakefront property has been in high demand, and as it becomes more scarce, the focus is shifting to rivers. Our northern organizations are asking for help in protecting their home waters for future enjoyment. They understand that development will occur, but they seek thoughtful, planned growth. In this time of decreasing funding for state agencies, these citizen groups are also able to help pick up where agency staff must sometimes leave off. The groups accomplish everything from river cleanups and fish habitat restoration to establishing water trails, watchdogging local polluters, and campaigning for selective small-dam removal.

In the words of Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.” On that note, I encourage you to join your local river or watershed group, and get involved in their work. If you don’t have a local group, start one. As we say at the River Alliance of Wisconsin, a healthy river is the heart of a healthy community.