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2003 Waters of Wisconsin Recommendations Fell on Deaf Ears

Updated 2003 report recommends thoughtful long-term water policy

Will Wisconsinites in 2075 be able to examine their “waters of Wisconsin” and look back with pride on the stewardship efforts of those who came before them?

That was the “greatest hope” of the authors of Waters of Wisconsin: The Future of Our Aquatic Ecosystems and Resources, a 2003 report by the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters.

But in light of all the water issues state residents are dealing with today, Waters of Wisconsin (WOW) almost reads like a utopian dream where everyone has equal concern in protecting precious waters.

In their preface to the report, WOW Committee co-chairs Stephen Born, Patricia Leavenworth and John Magnuson wrote: “Throughout our work on the Waters of Wisconsin, our attention has focused on one main question: How can we ensure healthy aquatic ecosystems and clean, abundant water supplies for tomorrow’s Wisconsin? This report brings together our findings and recommendations. Woven through the report are the thoughts and experiences of hundreds of our fellow citizens regarding the status of our waters, the necessity of farsighted policies and effective monitoring, the importance of civic engagement and a guiding water ethic, and the vital role of education. Our goal in this report is to point the way toward a bright future for our state’s waters, and for all that depends on them: our health, our communities, our economy, and our aquatic environment.”

In case you forgot, 2003 was declared the Year of Water in Wisconsin, hence the timing of the report.

“It is now up to citizens across Wisconsin to seize the moment and build support for sound long-term management of this irreplaceable resource,” the preface continued.

Waters of WisconsinIn the summary, the 13-year-old report identifies a problem with a piecemeal approach to water issues: “In the past, we have tended to address varied water needs and problems separately. The overriding challenge of the future is to find new and better integrated approaches to stewardship. We can allow ourselves to drift into an uncertain water future that merely responds in a piecemeal, reactive manner to issue after issue and crisis after crisis; or we can try to anticipate and shape our water future as active and informed participants in our communities and our state as a whole.”

The report summary also identified the many challenges facing Wisconsin waters: “A variety of chemical and biological contaminants require constant and continued attention. Persistent and residual point source pollutants remain a problem. Permitted effluent discharges in some areas are running up against the assimilative capacity of surface waters…. Our gains in controlling polluted runoff are offset to some degree by continued inputs of excessive nutrients and the increase in impermeable surface area that has come with extensive land development.”

Saying the reactive policies of the past no longer suffice, the report called for “a forward-looking, broad-based, coherent, consistent and integrated state policy to protect, manage and sustain our waters,” and it recommended that Governor Jim Doyle immediately convene a water policy task force to begin that process.

That never happened.

“Unfortunately, [Gov. Jim Doyle’s] office did not seize on that recommendation fully or specifically, but the water division of the WDNR (among others) at that point did follow up on several key aspects of water policy, particularly involving groundwater management, the Great Lakes compact, and public access to water policy information,” said Curt Meine, who at the time served as director of conservation programs for the WOW program and director of the WOW Initiative.

Illustration by Ryan Miller.

Illustration by Ryan Miller.

But the initiative has not been forgotten.

Meredith Keller, initiatives director for the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, said the academy’s executive director Jane Elder re-established the WOW initiative in 2012.

“The program has less funding and staff than it did a decade ago, so it is less robust; that said, Jane has reestablished a leadership network, organized several events, and launched a communications initiative (which includes a training manual and a bimonthly blog) all within the last three years,” Keller said. “You can check out our recent work by visiting the Waters of Wisconsin page at: wisconsinacademy.org/initiatives/wow.”

“The Academy will be releasing an update report in early May, and there will be a daylong conference in Madison on the theme of policy, science, and ethics, especially related to water,” Meine said. “In the forthcoming update report, we will again highlight the need for integrated approaches of water policy – a need that has only become more evident in the last few years. We wrote the original report for the long-run, so I hope we can all continue to work toward the positive goals we described back then.”

To register for the May 10 conference Science, Policy & Water: A Waters of Wisconsin Summit, click here.

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