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Waters of Wisconsin Program Blog


Waters of Wisconsin: The Next Generation

Wed, 02/19/2014 - 2:39pm -- Jane Elder

Between 2002 and 2003, I was one of more than 700 hundred Wisconsin citizens who participated in the Wisconsin Academy’s Waters of Wisconsin (WOW) initiative. I got involved because water has always played a leading role in my life and my work, and I wanted to be part of an important conversation with other people who shared my passion and wanted to safeguard Wisconsin’s water future. The wisdom, imagination and human energy galvanized by Waters of Wisconsin was one of the factors that compelled me to join the organization as executive director last year. I wanted to reinvigorate this thoughtful consideration of a topic so central to our quality of life, and Wisconsin’s economic, ecological and social sustainability.

A decade later, we can see many of the impacts from that first WOW initiative. The effort and its formal recommendations were a catalyst for advances in strategy, policy and practice, and it forged lasting personal and professional networks across fields that intersect with water. WOW was a springboard for actions that make Wisconsin a leader in water quality and conservation. The short list includes Wisconsin’s role in shaping the Great Lakes Compact, improvements in groundwater policy (to protect quality as well as quantity), wider adoption of “watershed approaches” to stormwater management and polluted runoff in both rural and urban river systems, and laying the groundwork for Wisconsin’s promising new policy to manage phosphorus pollution. This progress was born of a deep Wisconsin conservation ethic and sensitivity to Wisconsin culture and values. Add to this the availability of high quality science to help inform strategies from local communities to bi-national policy—the Wisconsin Idea in action.  And of course, there was a lot of listening, discussion and relationship building across communities and sectors – the stuff of healthy democratic process.

In 2013 we find ourselves with some of the old water challenges still very much with us, and with new and serious challenges demanding attention.  As a headwater state for both the Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds, we have to tackle the nutrient pollution (primarily phosphorus) that is fueling algal blooms that choke our local lakes in the summer, and that also add to the nutrient miasma that causes the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico and soupy green shores along Lake Michigan. Wisconsin is the largest source of nutrient pollution to Lake Michigan, and that isn’t anything to brag about.  Climate change is disrupting the precipitation patterns that we consider “normal” in this region, and extreme swings between drought and flood, and warmer waters that are changing habitat for trout and other sensitive species is just a small snapshot of the water-related impacts of climate in Wisconsin.  Over the last decade invasive species have fundamentally changed aquatic food webs in the Great Lakes and many other Wisconsin waters, and none for the better.  And these challenges – nutrient pollution, climate change, and invasive speces – are are just three influences that are changing our waters and our lives in Wisconsin.

So, it’s time for another thoughtful deliberation on the waters that define and sustain Wisconsin. As you look at the next ten years and beyond, what’s on the top of your “water list” for Wisconsin? We’re eager to hear from you.


Jane Elder recently retired from her position as Executive Director of the Wisconsin Academy. She brought to the Wisconsin Academy a strong background in public policy leadership, nonprofit management, and involvement in Wisconsin arts.

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