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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The rat race of boat buying!

The surest sign of spring around here isn't blooming crocuses or sinking ice-fishing shanties. It's the annual boat- and gear-buying frenzy that ensues when thousands of snowed-in paddlers are set loose at Canoecopia, the largest Paddling Expo in the world in Madison, Wisconsin.

This entertaining minute and a half video pretty much sums up the atmosphere of this crazy and fun event. To this river rat, it makes it crystal clear that there really isn't much difference between a den of rodents and a room full of paddlers in the throes of cabin fever.

More information is available at and

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Little Plover Gets A Lifeline

DNR sets minimum flows for stream that’s been dried up by groundwater pumping

Late last week, the Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources set a “public rights flow order” for the Little Plover River, in Portage County.

The Little Plover made national news in the summer of 2005 when its flow dried up completely. It has either dried up completely or been reduced to a trickle several times since. Hydrologists have determined that large wells pumping groundwater for urban uses and for farming were the cause of the river going dry. The river was a good case study for how the pumping of groundwater and the fate of nearby surface waters are integrally connected.

Two years ago, the River Alliance, Trout Unlimited, the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, Plover River Alliance and Friends of the Tomorrow/Waupaca petitioned the DNR to set a public rights flow for the Little Plover.

A public rights flow is a metaphoric mark on the river bank, below which the river level should not go. (Actually, the flow is measured in cubic feet per second.) A work group comprised of groundwater users and conservation interests have been meeting for over two years to figure out how to keep the river from drying up. Click hear for a news story that appeared on the Wisconsin Public Radio airwaves. (Scroll down to for the March 25th stories)

The order takes effect immediately, and it will get its first public airing at a meeting of the Little Plover work group on April 8.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Cosmic Balancing

The River Rat doe not traffic in numerology, or use tarot cards, or carry a crystal in its substantial jowls.

But there was something oddly appealing to not just one, but three, calls last week to celebrate the vernal equinox, that cosmic balancing point between equal parts night and day that cultures, even ancient rat cultures, have celebrated as long as humans have recorded their history.

As a bow to those ancient cultures, Rat trekked to the Wisconsin River valley on March 21 at the invitation of Frank Schadewald, a retired Richland County farmer and proud curator of Frank's Hill, site of well preserved effigy mounds, including what appears to be a cosmic calendar of twelve mounds assembled in a gentle curve that seems to follow the annual arc of the sun.

What better place to commune with the ancient spirits? Rat also mingled with 25 middle aged and beyond good spirits, for whom the trek to the top of Frank's Hill was a good test of lungs and well worked knees.

No one was compelled to call upon ancient spirits, burn incense, or invoke mysterious cosmic forces that morning. The mood was jovial; people treasured the calm morning and the pinkish-orange haze hanging over the river valley far below.

Perhaps in these times of social and economic upheaval, there is comfort and reassurance in observing a moment in time that has no beginning and end, as reliable and timeless as, well, the sun coming up in the morning.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Dirty Paws

I draw your attention to a short but effective letter in today's Wisconsin State Journal (yes...there are still newspapers out there...). It's about controlling farm run-off, which is something this River Rat knows you all care about...and if you don't, you should. Unless you think that everydayisStPattysgreengunkthickenoughtoscoopwithyourhand photo in my previous post is appealing. I sure don't. And who wrote the previously mentioned important missive? A dedicated River Alliance supporter who knows that sometimes you have to do more than read an entertaining blog (though I'm certainly glad you do) to keep our rivers running clean and free. Sometimes you gotta stick your paw into the green gunk and let everybody who'll listen know that it just isn't going to fly. Sometime you gotta be your own River Rat. So, to all you Rats out there with dirty paws giving it as good as we all certainly get it, this rat salutes you.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Erin go blecchh

Chicago River. Photo: Hu Guangyao/Xinhua/NEWSCOM
The Christian Science Monitor yesterday ran a brief article on their blog questioning the environmental safety of dyeing the Chicago River green for St. Patrick's Day. Apparently, when the St. Paddy's Day Parade committee was required to replace the toxic fluorescein back in 1966, they chose a vegetable-based alternative whose ingredients remain a closely guarded secret. Like the recipe for Coke Classic.

Well if Chicago isn't willing to be forthcoming about what they're dropping into the river, just head north to the Wisconsin River where, for the homeowners on Petenwell-Castle Rock Lakes, every summer day is Saint Patrick's Day! And they're more than willing to tell you a thing or two about what will turn a river green. This, too, is a vegetable-based dye - a carpet of algae fed on a rich diet of too much phosphorus sloughing into the Wisconsin River.

Virgil Miller, waterfront resident and PACRS member, goes for the green on the Wisconsin River, August 2008.

But unlike with green beer, you don't want your lips getting anywhere near this stuff...

Friday, March 13, 2009

Steve Haak and the Sugar River

photo: Steve Apps, Wisconsin State Journal

Farmer, trout fisherman and Sugar River steward John Haak is profiled in today's Wisconsin State Journal. Restoration of the upper Sugar River is a success story about fish, farming and feces.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Blue Gold and the Silver Screen

On February 20, 2009, River Alliance staff and friends attended the Beloit International Film Festival for the Wisconsin screening of water documentary Blue Gold: World Water Wars. Described by as "a water film that kicks ass!", Blue Gold follows the worldwide fight for access to water from Africa to Mexico to our own backyard: New Haven, Wisconsin. This small rural town holds the big distinction of being the only community to show Nestle the door when they tried to plunk a bottling plant atop their local spring water several years ago.

River Alliance enjoyed its five seconds of fame this night thanks to Helen Sarakinos who was a cast member of the fim. But more importantly, we got to publicly celebrate our own homegrown David-and-Goliath tale of local citizens protecting their water from a ruthless multinational. Sometimes, the good guys do win.

Blue Gold filmmaker, Sam Bozzo (second from left) is joined by cast members Helen Sarakinos, John Steinhaus and Dave Krause at the Beloit International Film Festival.
We had the pleasure of being joined in Beloit by the filmmaker Sam Bozzo (welcome to Wisconsin, Sam!) as well as a few of the New Haven water warriors who made the long drive in threatening weather. While the fight for access to freshwater isn't always the stuff of cocktail party conversations, it was a pleasure to see it rendered so well on film. And critics agree, judging by the awards this little film is racking up.

The film is making the rounds of international film festivals including Pam Springs, Vancouver, Paris, Thessaloniki and Washington, DC. PBS is releasing the DVD and you can buy it here. Go see the movie, then give that kitchen faucet of yours a hug.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Less money for state goverment, and less democracy for its citizens

There are hundreds of ways ordinary citizens can participate in the business of their local governments -- plan commissions, transportation working groups, ad hoc committees for this and that.

But under the guise of budget-trimming, eumphemized as "streamlining" and "efficiencies," there are at least four existing or proposed citizen-driven oversight boards serving Wisconsin state government in some fashion that will be weakened or eliminated. Their loss bodes badly for healthy democracy in Wisconsin.

The most obvious one is Governor Doyle's change of heart on allowing the natural resources secretary to answer to the Natural Resources Board, a board of citizen appointees, rather than be appointed by the governor him/herself. Many believe the work of the Dept. of Natural Resources has become much more politicized when the governor can run the DNR from his office, through his own appointed secretary, as opposed to a secretary working for a citizen board more attuned to the natural resource interests of the citizens.

Then there's the proposal by the dean of UW-Madison's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, proposing to essentially dismantle the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, which in its 20-year history had established a solid reputation for assisting small farms and high-value agricultural enterprises. One of its unique features was a citizen advisory board of the Center's own customers. The dean apparently told the CIAS citizen board that they were ineffectual, and has said in effect that the Center itself stood in the way of the university doing its real work.

The Department of Agriculture wants to send to extinction the decades-old Land and Water Conservation Board and render it into a "council" -- a toothless chattering class of high-level agricultural and natural resource officials whom the agency makes clear in a explanatory memo it will ignore if it feels like it. The LWCB had been steered into near oblivion in recent years by the agency, but was revived recently by some members who rediscovered its valuable oversight function -- hence its placement on the government chopping block. (Full disclosure: I am a member, a governor's appointee, to the LWCB.)

Finally, in the Governor's budget is the proposed make-up of three "regional transit authorities" to be created by the Legislature to oversee raising money regionally to spend on transit projects. A Legislative Council study committee recommended that the authorities themselves -- their governing bodies -- have a broad and diverse make-up. By contrast, the Governor's budget calls for these boards to be much more narrowly defined and, in the eyes of some observers, much less democratic and unresponsive to citizens.

None of these citizen-friendly boards cost very much money, but the cost, to open government and good democratic process, is considerable. Citizen oversight of the business of their government is not about merely making bureaucrats do more work. It's an exercise of democracy we should not so readily throw away, like taking old filing cabinets to the curb.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Fifth Annual Spring Confluence

The 5th Annual Spring Confluence will be held on Saturday April 25th from 7pm-9:30pm at the Warner Park Community Recreation Center. The event is shaping up to be a great one, with musical entertainment and the honoring of our River Champions.

Speaking of River Champions, we need your help. If you are interested in nominating an individual, business, or organization to receive an award, please email the name and a short paragraph describing why to Megan Gibson. Submit your nominations by March 18th.

As a dedicated River Alliance supporter, we hope you will join us as a Confluence Sponsor. For $100 you will receive two complimentary tickets, be recognized in the Confluence invitation and in follow-up communications to other members. Simply visit the Events Page and download the Individual Sponsor form.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Happy Days and More to Come

Last week, the state Assembly unanimously passed the Clean Lakes Bill, banning the use of phosphorus lawn fertilizer across the state. The bill has not yet passed the Senate, but given the same bill passed the Senate last year only to die in the Assembly, it’s only a matter of time.

Excess phosphorus is the bane of all our lakes, wetlands and rivers, causing algae growth that in turn depletes oxygen for fish and other aquatic life. Agricultural runoff is still the leading source, but in urban and suburban areas, around lakes all over the state and especially in the north where there is little farming, lawn fertilizer is a primary contributor of phosphorus to our waterways. The Clean Lakes Bill prohibits the display, sale and use of fertilizer with phosphorus, with a few exceptions: people starting a new lawn, or who have had their soil tested and found it to be depleted in phosphorus, can purchase phosphorus fertilizer.

Another exciting event is designation of a new Wild River, the Brunsweiler. The designation overwhelmingly passed both the Assembly and the Senate, and in the midst of Superior Days to boot! The designation also honors the life of Martin Hanson, long-time conservationist and caretaker of the Brunsweiler, who lived on its banks most of his life. Best of all, this was the first time in 44 years that Wisconsin has designated a new Wild River, and many legislators who didn’t even know there was such a law on the books have been educated. We have high hopes this new knowledge will lead to swift designation of the Totogatic River in northwest Wisconsin, and will instigate many more designations in years to come.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Japan, a dam and a resistance plan.

Kawabe River, Japan. Photo: Ko Sasaki for the New York Times

Today's New York Times features two not-unrelated articles. The first is an Op-Ed by a Japanese policy analyst about Japan's crisis of the mind and how the centralized, top-down model of governing the country is no longer working.

The other is about a grassroots uprising in opposition to a proposed dam on the Kawabe River near Tokyo. A coalition of environmental activists, commercial fisherman and local farmers organized to oppose the dam. More than half the city's 34,000 residents signed a petition opposing the project and in an even rarer victory, the governor of the prefecture successfully lobbied central government to suspend the project.

This is very big news in a country when building massive public works projects is a central tenet of government and major dam construction on Japan's beautiful and biologically unique rivers has been an unquestioned piece of the progress. Apparently citizens are starting to question it. And that is a good thing.