More than a decade has passed since the first statewide Waters of Wisconsin (WOW) conversation, and the publication of its definitive report Waters of Wisconsin: The Future of Our Aquatic Ecosystems & Resources (2003). Drawing from a diverse and growing set of stakeholders from across the state, the Wisconsin Academy initiated a new conversation in 2012 (known as WOW II) to assess progress in regards to our 2003 recommendations. It also sought to review the status of waters in Wisconsin today.
Over the past 15 months, Academy staff has been working closely with its WOW II Steering Committee and new Editorial Team (both of which include experts from Wisconsin non-profits, community organizations, research centers, colleges, universities, and state agencies) to take stock of the last four years of our WOW II Initiative—and, more broadly, reflect on progress, setbacks, and shifts in policy and practice with regards to Wisconsin’s waters over the past two decades. The result of this reflection and research is a new Academy report that compiles these changes and offers recommendations for effective water stewardship in the state. The report, entitled Shifting Currents: Progress, Setbacks, and Shifts in Policy and Practice, is an update to the 2003 Waters of Wisconsin publication.
We hope this report will drive a wider conversation about the status and future of water in Wisconsin when it’s released later this month. As a preview, we offer an excerpt from the report’s Foreword, as well as its final chapter in which we provide recommendations and identify opportunities to safeguard Wisconsin’s waters in the decades ahead.
Shifting Currents will be officially released on our website on September 16. To pre-order your hardcopy, and to learn more about the report, please visit: www.wisconsinacademy.org/shiftingcurrents.
—Jane Elder, Wisconsin Academy Executive Director AND Meredith Keller, Wisconsin Academy Initiatives Director 2014-2016
The Wisconsin Academy’s initial Waters of Wisconsin project (WOW I) facilitated a statewide conversation between 2000 and 2003 around one main question: How can we ensure healthy aquatic ecosystems and clean, abundant water supplies for tomorrow’s Wisconsin? Robust participation in this conversation underscored the important role citizens have in the stewardship of our waters, and we found enthusiastic support for farsighted policies—based on sound science—to manage our water legacy.
Overall, we found that Wisconsinites cherish water and see our waters as essential to our way of life in Wisconsin. Nationally, our state ranks 25th in land area but has the fourth-highest area covered by water. Wisconsin is 20th in population but is second only to Florida in the number of fishing licenses sold each year. Clean water supports billions of dollars’ worth of economic activity through tourism, agriculture, and industry.
From the Northwoods cabin to the Port of Milwaukee to the Wisconsin Dells, water shapes our state’s identity. Our tradition of safeguarding Wisconsin’s waters is grounded in values such as responsibility to family and future generations, respect for land and wildlife, protecting public health and safety, and caring for water as a common good, as articulated in the state’s Public Trust Doctrine. These deeply held values have also shaped a conservation ethic, and its legacy has served many generations who depend upon and enjoy the waters of the state.
Through the WOW I Initiative we identified the need to overcome the institutional and disciplinary separation of science, policy, and management protocols through a more integrated approach to water management. WOW also affirmed that the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and other public agencies play a critical role in sound scientific application, citizen participation, and the practical implementation of policy while balancing public and private interests toward the goal of a clean water future.
More than a decade has passed since our first statewide WOW conversation and the report that captured recommendations from its participants: Waters of Wisconsin: The Future of Our Aquatic Ecosystems and Resources. Drawing from a diverse and growing set of stakeholders from across the state, the Wisconsin Academy initiated a new conversation in 2012 (known as WOW II) to assess progress in regard to our 2003 recommendations. We also sought to review the status of waters in Wisconsin today.
The result of this renewed conversation is Shifting Currents: Progress, Setbacks, and Shifts in Policy and Practice. The new report assesses progress in brief, and explores in greater depth the continuing and emerging challenges to water quality, supply, and aquatic ecosystems in Wisconsin.
From its inception, the Wisconsin Academy’s Waters of Wisconsin (WOW) Initiative has brought together people from across the state, and from varied fields and areas of interest, to address challenges and seize opportunities related to our precious waters. It has done so as a matter of both principle and practical reality: the state of our waters reflects the ways we interact not only with them, but with one another and our institutions. The WOW project has aimed to provide guidance for Wisconsin citizens in sustaining the health of our water resources and aquatic ecosystems over the long term. The specific recommendations we offer below continue this effort, resting upon a set of broad values that must underlie a sustainable water future in Wisconsin:
We recognize and honor Wisconsin’s unique array of water resources and aquatic ecosystems, our history of both exploitation and recovery, and our evolving set of values and ethics with regard to water. In particular, we honor the Public Trust Doctrine, which ensures that our waters are held in trust for all citizens by the State of Wisconsin.
We are committed to science-based management and stewardship of all our waters. Science does not, and cannot by itself, determine appropriate management actions. But it plays an essential role in informing sound decision-making, providing the “sideboards” on uncertainty, and monitoring the effectiveness of our management actions and interventions.
We are committed to a more integrated and comprehensive approach to water management. As our waters are connected, so are our water problems and water stewardship opportunities. Fragmented, incremental, and piecemeal approaches to the interconnected waters of our state inevitably detract from sound management and invite inefficiencies. Our water resources and systems can be sustained only if we move toward this integrated approach, based on whole watersheds and entire ecosystems, including our human economy and the communities within it.
We embrace a commitment to sustainable and long-term water management approaches, as opposed to short-term “fixes” to immediate crises. Such crises are not just problems in themselves; they are symptoms of larger-scale and longer-term problems.
We are dedicated to intelligent adaptive management as a means to meet our long-term water stewardship responsibilities. This must be built into our water management approach as we plan actions and interventions, monitor outcomes, and adjust and adapt management going forward. Our water systems are dynamic, and so must be our efforts to work well with and within them.
We honor and welcome our Wisconsin tradition of citizen engagement in water stewardship—in our communities, businesses, organizations, and governmental bodies. A fundamental aspect of this is the assurance of transparency in governmental decisions affecting all our citizens.
We challenge all our fellow citizens to be effective water stewards, to make every effort to anticipate and shape our water future as active and informed participants in our communities, our watersheds, and Wisconsin as a whole. Merely reacting to unwelcome change is not enough; we aim to engage in informed planning and cooperative caretaking of our shared waters—for ourselves, for future generations, and for all that depend on clean, abundant, and self-replenishing water in Wisconsin.
In this context, we recommend the following actions:
1. Develop an Integrated Water Management Framework
Water issues inherently involve connections and continuity, yet our water policies remain fragmented across the landscape and in our institutions. To defend against inequities and to safeguard freshwater ecosystems, Wisconsin needs to bring its water management strategies up to date, learning from examples in neighboring states and provinces. As we recommended in 2003, Wisconsin still needs an integrated water management strategy that acknowledges and addresses the connections between ground and surface water systems, and the common and unique challenges in both the Great Lakes and Mississippi watersheds.
This strategy should include:
- A statewide water conservation plan (fulfilling and building upon the requirement for a Wisconsin water conservation plan under the Great Lakes Compact);
- Enhanced groundwater protections that anticipate, assess, and mitigate the cumulative impacts of high-capacity wells;
- Steps to redress data collection gaps, specifically for monitoring wells;
- Steps to fully engage the scientific and technical community to ensure a management framework that is based on sound science and one that can also be supported by reliable technical capacities; and
- A plan to protect and restore ecological and hydrological systems that are critical for our state’s groundwater recharge, water filtration, and flood prevention and for sustaining resilient and diverse aquatic habitat.
2. Safeguard Drinking Water
Wisconsin must take steps to reinvigorate water quality protections for drinking water and the healthy ecosystems that provide it through active prevention and also through restorative measures (wherever possible).
- Anticipating and regulating land-based as well as surface-water sources of pollution to sensitive aquifers such as the karst region or the Central Sands;
- Reducing pesticide applications across the state (consider developing a state-level nutrient and pesticide reduction strategy that engages stakeholders in developing practices and solutions and sets targets for reductions in both the Great Lakes and Mississippi Basins); and
- Increasing groundwater monitoring and reporting on quality as well as quantity.
In addition, Wisconsin needs to work with communities where the municipal drinking water systems still include lead service lines to ensure that those people who are dependent on those systems are not at risk, and work to determine long-term strategies to remove lead pipes or reduce risks from them.
3. Control Nutrient Pollution
Wisconsin needs to invest in the implementation of the Wisconsin Phosphorus Rule by providing communities with technical support and resources, and documenting and sharing successful practices that advance effective adaptive management.
- Examining existing best practices and finding ways to improve them;
- Exploring applicable strategies from other complex governing approaches, such as the Great Lakes Compact, that may integrate local and regional approaches;
- Identifying progress, successes, and lessons learned on nutrient reduction and erosion control through the Mississippi River Basin Initiative and the Clean Water Act Total Maximum Daily Load assessments and resulting strategies; and
- Evaluating the water impact of Wisconsin’s 30 x 20 Initiative (an effort to produce 30 billion pounds of dairy products in Wisconsin annually by 2020), and evaluating how farm policy is influencing net nutrient inputs in Wisconsin.
4. Apply Watershed-Scale Strategies
As an investment in Wisconsin’s long-term health and natural assets, Wisconsin should commit to wetland, shoreline, and streamside (riparian) conservation practices and work with local communities and watershed organizations to develop strategies to restore and sustain hydrological and ecological functions that enhance water quality, groundwater recharge, and habitat for native aquatic species.
5. Plan for Climate Change
Wisconsin needs a game plan for addressing climate change and its impacts on the state’s waters. Building on the excellent work of the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI), we recommend developing and implementing a Wisconsin Climate Action Plan that includes:
- Expanding Wisconsin’s capacity to reduce its carbon emissions and enhance natural carbon storage in natural and farmed landscapes;
- Building freshwater adaptation capacity and resilience, both ecologically and within human systems and infrastructure through local and regional planning, coupled with conservation and restoration strategies;
- Increasing public understanding of the limits to adaptation and how to anticipate irreversible consequences; and
- Disseminating information about climate change impacts on Wisconsin’s waters to planners and decision-makers for water infrastructure (both drinking water and wastewater systems), habitat management, municipalities, regional planning authorities, and other water managers.
6. Manage Invasive Species
Wisconsin must control, slow, and eliminate the spread of aquatic invasive species. Some strategies include:
- Considering support for opportunities to ecologically separate the Lake Michigan and Mississippi Basin watersheds in cooperation with other Great Lakes states;
- Supporting and expanding educational efforts to raise awareness among commercial shippers, boaters, and others to prevent the further spread of aquatic invasive species; and
- Supporting research on the effect of the spread of invasives, the reasons why some bodies of water are more susceptible to invasion than others, and alternative means of controlling their spread.
7. Modernize Water Infrastructure
Work with municipalities, drinking water and wastewater utilities, sewerage districts, and other units of local governments to identify urgent needs for maintenance and new construction to reduce exposure to drinking water contaminants and modernize sewage treatment capacities. With priorities identified, work with state and federal governments to secure a plan and funding mechanisms to address both urgent and routine maintenance.
8. Commit to Transparency and Public Participation
Citizens, communities, organizations, and businesses throughout Wisconsin have a strong stake in water policy decisions. Yet our public dialogue has been marked by polarization, lack of access to critical information and ideas, and constrained and abbreviated approaches to public engagement and deliberation. We urge those engaged in setting and implementing policy to examine public engagement processes and reinvigorate efforts to provide citizens of the state with meaningful mechanisms to engage in shaping, deliberating, and implementing water polices in Wisconsin through open dialogue, transparency, and timely response to queries and requests for information.
9. Invest in Water Literacy
Reaffirming the recommendations from the first WOW report, we need to better articulate the pressing and emerging water concerns in Wisconsin and help people understand the economic, environmental, and social consequences of our decisions about water. Education and public engagement strategies should include concerted efforts to educate all Wisconsinites, from elementary students to policy-makers, about basic water science and social science, water history and water ethics, the role of water in our economy, the policy-making process for water, and the Public Trust Doctrine and what it means for our water resources.