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Volunteer organizations critical partners in protecting Wisconsin’s waters

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the sixth in a series of articles aimed at celebrating Wisconsin’s Year of Water by highlighting water resources and some of the major challenges to sustaining these resources for now and future generations. Todd Ambs leads the DNR Water Division, which houses programs and staff responsible for managing water quality in lakes and rivers; assuring the safety, quality and availability of drinking water and groundwater, and managing and monitoring aquatic ecosystems and habitat and commercial and sport fisheries. Ambs previously served as executive director of River Alliance of Wisconsin, as executive director of Rivers Unlimited, the statewide river protection organization in Ohio, and spokesman for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.]

By Todd Ambs, Administrator, DNR Division of Water

Year of Water

We have a special tradition and indeed, legacy here in Wisconsin. Part of our heritage, which is embedded in our state constitution and supported by over 150 years of law, is the principle that the waters of our state are held in trust for all of the citizens of our state. Thousands of folks take that premise to heart every year when they invest their time, money and expertise to support one of the hundreds of locally based, largely volunteer environmental, conservation, sporting and angling groups in Wisconsin.

As we all know, there is plenty of water to protect and support: 15,000 lakes, 57,000 miles of flowing rivers, 5.3 million acres of wetlands and 1.2 quadrillion gallons of groundwater.

bulletThe list of groups working to protect those resources is as impressive as that inventory:


bulletMore than 1,000 volunteers monitoring lake water quality;


bulletMore than 600 lake associations;


bullet100 river and watershed groups;


bullet65 land trusts;


bulletHundreds of local hunting and angling groups.


Add to those totals statewide organizations ranging from the Wisconsin Association of Lakes, to the Gathering Waters Conservancy to the Conservation Congress and Wisconsin chapters of national conservation groups including the National Wildlife Federation, Trout Unlimited and Ducks Unlimited. Wisconsin boasts the largest DU chapter, with nearly 53,000 members and leads other DU chapters in grassroots funding with $3.9 million.

These conservation groups are manifestations of the love Wisconsin citizens have for their natural resources -- a love that some suggest is deeper and more prevalent here than in other states. These organizations, as well as individual citizens, have been critical partners in the last century in protecting Wisconsin lakes, streams, wetlands and groundwater. They’ve spurred and helped set natural resource laws and policies, completed conservation projects in their communities and statewide, and have secured resources for their own and governments’ conservation efforts.

In recent months, for example, the news has been filled with stories reflecting the effectiveness and influence of community-based conservation groups on Wisconsin waters:

bulletA petition from 26 conservation and other groups spurred DNR to pursue and develop draft rules requiring utilities to significantly curb the mercury emissions that now contribute to fish consumption advisories in all Wisconsin waters.


bulletWorkshops offered by the Wisconsin Wetland Association and partners including DNR have trained dozens of volunteers to identify, help monitor and control purple loosestrife, an invasive plant invading wetlands and crowding out native plants.


bulletAll over the state -- from the Friends of the Jump River up north to the Rock River Coalition in the southeast, to more than 20 local Trout Unlimited chapters, and through lake associations in every part of Wisconsin -- organizations are providing the money and “sweat equity” to help protect and restore habitat in and around our waters.


These are just a few examples of how conservation groups, alone and in partnership with DNR or other governments, have been and will continue to protect and enhance Wisconsin’s water quality and assure public access to these waters.

And these organizations will become even more important in coming years because of several converging trends:

bulletThe ecosystem management approach DNR adopted in the mid-1990s means that local representatives and organizations, in partnership with DNR, identify problems affecting water quality in their river basin. They’ll set goals and priorities for improving basin water quality, and how they’ll achieve those goals.


bulletMany of the thorniest threats to Wisconsin waters are problems that individual citizens contribute to: polluted runoff from farms, cities and construction sites; invasive species spread by boat traffic, congested waters and the destruction of vital plants and trees along the shoreline. Solving these problems will require individual and collective action. More often than not, organizations are often more successful in encouraging such individual action than is government.


bulletAnd, finally, like the old cliché that “all politics is local,” I believe that all water protection efforts are ultimately local because they must reflect local priorities and solutions to fully succeed.


When I led the River Alliance of Wisconsin, I often said that our organization was a partner to DNR when appropriate and a watchdog when necessary. I still believe that mantra and urge all citizens and groups to feel free to employ it.

The waters of this state do not belong to the DNR or to property owners who live along those waters. Collectively we hold these precious resources in trust for future generations. Thousands of citizens embrace that principle every year as part of Wisconsin’s thriving community-based conservation tradition.




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