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Monday, December 20, 2010

Can They Actually Do That?

If on a barstool or bus seat or deer stand this fall you overheard chatter about what will happen with natural resources policy with the new sheriff and his posse in town, Rat is happy to incendiarily fan any flames that chatter ignited in you with the following speculation, now that we know Wisconsin is finally “open for business:”

Turn on Waukesha’s Lake Michigan Tap! The Wisconsin DNR has done yeoman’s duty (actually, they are following the letter of the Great Lakes Compact) poring over the city of Waukesha’s request to put Lake Michigan water on a 50-mile round trip to the city and back. Rat’s Guess: It seems only a matter of time that the man in the cubicle at DNR asking the right questions will be told to skip the questions and get to the answer: give Waukesha Lake Michigan water and make it snappy.

Turn on the Cow Manure! The dairy industry has wanted fast-track permits for its mega-farms of 1,000 cows and up. (There are several proposals for cow factories of over 5,000 cows in the planning stages.) The DNR had bowed to the industry’s wishes for quicker and easier (so-called general) permits, but with the quid pro quo that those farms would pay higher fees to pay for the sped-up permit processing. Rat’s Pretty Good Guess: They will get their faster permits, but they won’t pay a dime more in fees.

Open Up the Iron Ore Pits! There’s iron in them there rocks of Iron and Ashland counties, in northern Wisconsin. Just days after the elections, plans were made public for open-pit mines in the region. (Discussions about mining had been happening on the down-low for years.) People wonder: can Wisconsin’s superb mining moratorium play defense against this mine, or the possibility of copper and nickel mining along the Menominee River? Rat’s Guess: If the moratorium (requiring a mine operator to show they have shut down a sulfide mine for at least 10 years without environmental damage) appears to obstruct mining in northern Wisconsin, the new gov and legislature will simply (try to) repeal it.

How Do YOU Spell DNR? There was a bumper sticker popular 20 years ago that referred to the DNR (department of natural resources) as “Damn Near Russia.” (That sentiment did not refer to the agency’s proximity to that country.) Next year, DNR could easily spell, “Destroy Now…Really!” A favorite scheme of DNR bashers has been to call for splitting the agency in two – one side would handle huntin’ and fishin,’ the other would deal with the regulatory stuff. Bashers believe (erroneously) that license fees are being taken right out of the hands of hunters and anglers and paying for bureaucrats to make life miserable for a guy who just wants to fill in a little wetland to build his warehouse. Rat’s Guess: This proposal will get real traction in the coming months. To the incredulous who ask, “But how does splitting an agency in two jibe with making state government smaller?” it’s simple: starve the regulatory side of the agency of funding so it can’t do its work.

There Was Once a “Decider.” Now There Will Also Be “Suspenders.” And they are not of the clothing variety. If a legislator doesn’t like an administrative rule because he thinks it burdens a constituent, he can simply get the rule suspended, sending it to regulatory purgatory. (Is that then Purglatory?) Rat’s Guess: the obscure but influential legislative body with a deadly name – the Joint Committee on the Review of Administrative Rules – will be busier in the next two years than the high-speed train station in Madison would have been if it hadn’t been shut down by the gov-elect. Rules to manage how shoreland is developed, rules that protect wetlands, rules that will limit algae-feeding phosphorus – they’re all candidates for Purglatory at the hands of the JCRAR.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A True and Dear River Rat Has Died

Dale Druckrey
The Rat learned today that a true brother in the cause, Dale Druckrey, died in a house fire in the past day.

Dale was a loveable old guy who not only kept incredibly well informed on conservation and environmental issues, he also kept track of what the various conservation and environmental groups were saying and doing on this or that issue.

Though his favorite group was probably Trout Unlimited, Dale was an investor in many local and state environmental and conservation concerns. In fact, it’s not clear anyone but Dale knows the extent of his generosity.

He was a classic bachelor farmer who had a long career in state government, and also worked for the Menominee tribe for many years. You never called Dale to leave a message, because he didn’t have an answering machine. If you wanted to talk to him, you’d better call around noon when he was in the house for lunch.

And forget email and web sites and other trappings of the modern life for Dale. He apparently kept the stuff he’d get from organizations in piles in his house. One time, he called the River Alliance to ask about something we said. He put the phone down to go this “River Alliance materials,” and came back a minute later to call us out (gently) about a position we took.

Knowing Dale Druckrey cared so deeply about the rivers and lakes and lands of Wisconsin, and the groups devoted to their protection, made doing that work so much more rewarding and easier to get up in the morning to do. He watched, he participated, he cared, he donated. From this Rat’s perspective, he was a model conservation citizen.

We should all find a hill or a riverbank or a wetland or a nature center hiking trail today, and go say a hearty “Thanks and fare well!” to Dale Druckrey.

posted by the River Rat

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Moist boots = snotty results?

I, the River Rat, understand that you bipedal primates were not made to nimbly navigate my rivers. I have watched many times from the weeds as you struggle between the banks to keep your footing. Therefore, I think that your solution of gluing felt onto the bottom of your wading boots to increase traction was quite commendable and ingenious. However, scientists and the angling community around the globe are having trouble denying the correlation between this practice of wearing felt-soled wading boots widely adopted in the late 1980s and the spread of a nasty invader, Rock Snot (aka Didymosphenia geminate). Check out this interesting paper: “The Science of Felt – 2009: A look at the science driving the move to eliminate the use of felt soled waders” by the Center for Aquatic Nuisance Species.

Didymos occurrences across the U.S.

Didymo cells can remain alive and well nestled up in felt as long as they stay moist. Felt, unlike most other materials on anglers’ equipment, may stay moist for days harboring these appalling single celled boogers. It takes merely ONE invisible cell to spread this stuff.

Photo: Biosecurity New Zealand

Several states are considering banning the sale or use of felt to help protect fisheries and other aquatic life, like myself. Vermont and Alaska have already passed such laws. Missouri is the first Midwest state to consider this. Should Wisconsin should be the next? What do you think?

posted by the River Rat

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Visionary Art or Over the Top?

Photo: Christo, 2010

Red flag or wet rag? The Wall Street Journal ran an article this week about artist Christo's latest proposed project: to suspend fabric over 42 miles of the Arkansas River in Colorado. The 72-year old Christo and his late wife Jeanne-Claude, are famous for their larger-than-life installation art projects which involve wrapping entire buildings in fabric (like the Reitestag in Germany) and creating over 23 miles of fabric panels in Central Park, NY.

Now, Christo, 72, is trying to convince locals to come around to his $54 million dollar swan song: to unfurl a mirror-like fabric over the Arkansas in southern Colorado to mimic the twists and turns of 43 miles of this ancient river. The project is so immense it's had to undergo an environment impact statement under National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a gauntlet of studies usually reserved for things like mining, dam building and highway construction. Supporters contend that a project like this can bring welcome attention, tourism and revenue to the area. In fact, the Bureau of Land Management estimated this project could draw more than 300,000 tourists to the river and generate over $120 million in economic impact. Opponents fear short-term damage to the ecosystem, traffic snarls and too many people tromping around their quiet communities. Still others feel like the idea of this project is a desecration of the majesty of mother nature.

Me, I'm on the proverbial 23-mile long fence on this one.

What do you think? Leave a comment and share your perspective.

posted by the River Rat

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Real Wild Rice is Very Nice

The River Alliance is pleased to have Tina Van Zile, a member of the Sokaogon band of Lake Superior Chippewa, as a member of our board of directors. Not only because we have common cause in healthy waters with the Sokaogon Chippewa and other Indian communities, but also because of what that connection can mean for our organization to learn about native ways.

Tina Van Zile (right) and Marcia Kraus (center) learn from Tina’s father, Charlie Polar, how seamlessly he moves from traditional to modern materials to sift and winnow wild rice.

Like wild ricing, for example. (Please know that the “wild rice” you buy in the industrial food system is not really the wild rice that is the heart Wisconsin’s Great Lakes Indian tribes – the Chippewa, the Menominee and the Potawatomi.)

You’ll know real wild rice by its price (around $12 per pound) and where you can buy it. (Look for it at convenience stores on reservations, but there are other outlets.) Getting native wild rice to the dinner table is a painstaking process, deeply rooted in tradition. Most of us have seen the traditional harvesting of the rice, where people slowly poling canoes in shallow lakes and rivers use one stick to bend the rice into the boat and another to knock the kernels from the stalks.

Tina gave us an insight to the culture and lore of native wild rice recently at the Sokaogon reservation near Mole Lake, Wisconsin. She explained that the source of much of the tribe’s wild rice is the aptly named Rice Lake, whose rice production has increased substantially because the tribe is managing it carefully.

Tina Van Zile shows Brad Werntz and other River Alliance board members Rice Lake, a source of pride of the Sokaogon Chippewa community for the prolific and full-grained wild rice the lake produces.

But perhaps harvesting it is the easy part. The hard part –getting it ready to cook and eat – may be why the wild rice tradition is fading for her own and other Chippewa communities. Tina took us to her parents’ place near Crandon, where her brothers Roy and Norm, sister Marie and father Charlie Polar were getting the rice from its raw stage to something you can cook. Dad Charlies was clearly in charge of the cleaning process – winnowing the chaff, heating the rice in a metal tub over an open fire, and then a final step of swishing the rice around with this fabulous Goldbergian contraption of belts, PVC pipe and a vacuum cleaner to separate grains from husks.

Tina observed that very few families are willing to do the work to keep the tradition alive. “My dad is one of the last elders to keep this going, and I don’t know what will happen to it if he can’t do it anymore.”

Tina’s tip for cooking real wild rice – soak it overnight before you cook it for 20 minutes or so. If you don’t soak it, you won’t like what you get.

Denny Caneff

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Niger: Flowing Vitality

There are a handful of great, grand rivers in the world – the Yangtze, the Amazon, the Mississippi, the Congo, the Yukon, the Danube.

Their flowing waters tell the stories of the continents through which they flow and the human transactions – peaceful, violent, mercantile, poetic – those rivers have stimulated and enabled.

I would put the Niger River, in that pantheon of great, grand rivers. Most African rivers confounded the colonial explorers who used those rivers to first understand, then exploit, the continent, but the Niger, Africa’s third longest, confounded even more. Its origins are in the rain forest highlands of Guinea, not far from the coast of West Africa, to which you’d expect it to flow.

But it actually flows northeast and away from the ocean, heading right for the foot of the Sahara Desert, in modern-day Mali, before angling southeasterly on its voyage through Niger and Nigeria before it expires at the Gulf of Guinea.

I have always imagined traveling a good length of the Niger. But it’s not very practical, unless you have a constitution of steel. I settled for a one-day pilgrimage to the river during a 10-day visit to the country of Mali in August of 2010. (My daughter was doing a research project in Mali’s capital, Bamako, a sprawling Third World city sharply defined by the Niger.)

That one day – strolling its banks, plying its brown tide in a poled pirogue (hand-made wooden canoe) and enjoying beer and pizza at a riverside café at sunset – was just enough time to take in and savor the mystique of this great river.

The many functions that the river serves for Malians will surprise, and may disturb, Westerners with an appetite for pristine rivers. People are doing their laundry just downstream from the guys digging sand out of the river to build cement blocks. And just upstream from that are people bathing in the river, next to a young herdsman cooling the heels of his cattle in the river.

But it’s the vitality of the Niger for the people living along its banks that makes it great. The Niger is lifeblood for this very dry part of the world. For hundreds of years it has been a connecting thread of culture and language and music for several empires in that part of Africa. Cell phones and buses have replaced its transport and communications functions, but modern Malians know how it defines their country.

They are river people, proud of the natural heritage the Niger River has given them.

Denny Caneff

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Finding Love in a Ditch....

There’s a commonly held belief that floats around our great badger state that enviros and farmers are always at loggerheads and that’s just the way it is. Never the tilled soil and the hugged tree should meet, so to speak. Too often, this is a damned accurate assumption….especially amongst the more commercially focused members of the agribusiness community and even the more rigid members of the tree-hugging society. “Oh lack-a-day,” some will say, “it’s just the way of things…best to accept it and prepare for scuffling.”

This last Saturday, a group of folks said “Pish!” to that idea and gathered at Justin (on the right) and Lynn Isherwood’s farm near Plover for the River Alliance’s second annual BBQ on the Banks. It’s important to note that the Isherwoods are not your 15-acre and a quaint barn type of gentleman (or gentlewoman) farmer…they’re an honest to goodness commercial operation farming several hundred acres of potatoes and canning vegetables in the unique central sands region of the state. And they’re true stewards of the land….and the water. They understand the dangers of turning a blind eye to the level of water usage needed to grow a potato in Wisconsin’s central region, and work hard to find a balance between their usage and the groundwater needs of the area.

And don’t worry reader…there’s a river connection too. As with most of the farmland in that area, the Isherwoods’ fields are bordered by “laterals,” otherwise known as drainage ditches. What many folks don't know is that these ditches once were fine cold water streams teeming with trout. Seems that about 100 years ago, town planners thought the drainage capabilities of these streams would be greatly enhanced by dredging and straightening them. Maybe, maybe not. But nowadays there are those who envision a return of these trout havens to their natural, meandering courses. J. Isherwood is one of those, and river rats who attended BBQ on the Banks on July 17 got to see his efforts to do just that.

As with most River Alliance events, this outing mixed lessons with lively fun, treating the attendees to Justin and Lynn’s “earthy” wisdom and sound farming techniques while sampling some of the area’s nicest products. Offerings included beer from Central Waters Brewing, salads from Adventure 212 Bistro and Café 27 (who threw in some very fine croissants too), as well as the Isherwoods’ version of the famous (infamous?) Moore Barn pulled pork sandwich (it’s difficult to dislike a sandwich with its own mythology…even if there is suspicion that said mythology was cooked up by Justin himself). The highlight of the feast, though, was some of our hosts’ red potatoes, fresh from the ground. Lynn suggested a bit of butter, salt and pepper for the melt in your mouth tubers, but to be truthful, those windows needed no curtains.

A good time was had by all, hay wagons were boarded, corn silk was tasted and perhaps some current mythology was dented. As they (almost) say in the song…"The River Rat and the Farmer should be friends…”

With more folks like Justin and Lynn, that might just happen.

Want to see more pics from the event? Head to . All photos by Lia Vellardita.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Rat Seeks Carp

You’d think the most exotic and controversial animal trap in the entire country would be more exciting to look at. It wasn’t. As a connoisseur of traps, this Rat was most curious about an electric fish trap. And from this Rat’s perspective, this fish (trap) story is a dandy tale -- about human beings, the illusions you harbor about controlling nature, and the immutable law of unintended consequences.

The aforementioned animal trap is actually not a trap but an electric fish barrier, wired to the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. It is the last line of defense keeping the marauding Asian carp from wreaking havoc in Lake Michigan, and no doubt beyond. (But as a fellow low-life, bottom-feeding critter, Rat does harbor some sympathy for the much disparaged Asian carp.)

The site of the electric fish barrier, on the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.

You’ll see pictured here some interested souls getting a tour of this fish barrier, found near Lockport, Illinois and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Essentially the barrier is a bunch of thick wires in the water just above the bottom of the canal that emit electric waves that repel the fish. Even though you weren’t supposed to actually see fish fleeing , very few of the people on this tour shared the Corps’ sanguine view of the effectiveness of this device.

The weird plumbing Chicago area rivers can be seen at this site (called Bubbly Creek at one time because of the decaying refuse gassing off in the stream, located about a mile from the Loop).

So far, only one Asian carp has found upstream from the barrier that we know about, but plenty of Asian carp DNA has been detected. Experts believe if the carp gets past the barriers, they have a free shot to Lake Michigan, and eventually Wisconsin’s rivers. (Asian carp can get to Wisconsin via the Mississippi River too, of course.)

Equally fascinating on this tour was getting to see firsthand the elaborate and massive plumbing job that is the river and surface waterway system for Chicago. The whole thing has been engineered to look nothing like it looked before settlement, and its dual purpose is to move cargo and send polluted water down to the Mississippi River (150 miles away) instead of to Lake Michigan (which is right there). Trying to manipulate this system to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes, as some are proposing, will be enormous engineering, hydrologic and – especially – political undertaking.

Time is totally on the carp’s side on this one.

Festivities, Fireworks and Flying Fish

No matter how many times I see it, it still sends chills up my spine. Check out this stunning video taken last week of salmon running Dagger Falls, on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, Idaho, 700 miles from the sea.:

Save Our Wild Salmon are asking people to take action and let the Obama Administration know that protecting these incredible animals and this awesome journey is something we all care about. Take a minute to send a letter to the Administration here (actually, it takes less than a minute).

Then go be awestruck by this beautiful country.

Now THAT's patriotic!

posted by the River Rat

Friday, May 28, 2010

If you're Nestle, money DOES buy happiness.

Sometimes, you just can't make this stuff up.

The Wall St. Journal last week ran an article about the resistance Nestle is encountering to a proposed bottling plant in the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon. Commenting on the trend that people are getting smart and turning on their taps instead of peelingthe cap off expensive little plastic bottles, Nestle Chief Executive Paul Bulke had this to whine say:
"Water is a category that gave us so many years of joy...and all of a sudden, it changes. That is what hurts."

Joy? Is that what we're calling pure profit these days?

posted by the River Rat

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Lingering Limburger Smell of Scared-Rat Politics

Rat has been sniffing around the halls of the Capitol and found more than a little Limburger. And in these days of tea parties and heightened rhetoric, there’s also the smell of fear in the air. This fall, the governor’s seat, all 99 Assembly seats and more than half the Senate seats are up for grabs. You can bet that played a big role in our elected representatives' lily-livered inaction this spring.

There’s nothing new to election-year politics, is there? Don’t the guys in office always try to rig the system to hang onto power? Sure.

But the question draws a rat’s nose to those currently in power, the Democrats. Rat would love to surface some conservation group newsletters (including that from my beloved River Alliance) from November 2008, no doubt expressing glee (in very careful non-partisan tones, of course) that the Dems were total lords of the Capitol, and we could expect big breakthroughs on conservation policy.

Conservation went a dismal 0 for 4 on its top priorities. (There were some things to cheer about: two new Wild Rivers named, phosphorus bans in the form of lawn fertilizer and dishwasher soap, e-waste legislation.)

What’s at the bottom of the Dems dropping the conservation ball? The messy knot of money and power, Rat thinks, and not just on conservation.

First, there’s the obvious currying favor with interests with money to burn on campaigns. That can be the only explanation for the Democrats’ shameful dithering on regulating payday loan operations. This should have been a no-brainer for a party supposedly committed to struggling people. But they milked the industry for tens of thousands of dollars in campaign donations, not to mention throwing out any shred of integrity about the policy when Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan (in effect, the Assembly Dems’ majority leader) was found with a payday industry lobbyist on his arm.

Then there’s the hideous process of letting AT&T write their own bill to deregulate land lines. Dems’ fingerprints are on that too. (Luckily the bill died.)

Sheridan’s Democratic counterpart in the state Senate, Russ Decker, deserves a few brickbats for holding up good legislation, out of fear of making his colleagues have to vote on it, for fear that it might lose the Dems a senate seat. His pettiness ended up holding up said good legislation for another reason: he was punishing some senators for voting for someone else for majority leader. (Turns out those senators were on to something.)

But why cling to power when you won’t use it for a good purpose? Power ought to me a means to an end, and in the current Capitol climate, where both majority and minority leaders get picked as much for their fund raising ability as for their diplomacy, the means is the means is the means – raise money from wherever you can to hold a seat, so you can get re-elected so you can hold a seat, so you can…..

Part of the blame for such dismal performance by the Legislature (Dems in charge, so more shame on them) has to go to Jim Doyle. He’s never been a back-slapping, glad-handing, hustle-the-Legislature kind of politician. He never served in the other wings of the Capitol, and seemed to avoid them like a vegetarian steers away from a butcher. Rat overheard the complaints of many Democratic legislators that they felt dissed by the Gov because he simply paid them no mind. It’s very hard to advance an agenda if legislators and the governor don’t talk to one another. Note to Dems: See Tommy Thompson.

Total majority is a privilege that the Dems may have squandered, leaving them in this paradox: by having been so cautious and so beholden to cash constituents, they may lose the very power their caution and special-interest pleasing was supposed to help them keep.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Hydro Hijinks

Rat has watched with interest the unfolding, and what now may be the unraveling, of “Clean Energy Jobs Act” (CEJA), a coal pile of policy proposals to get us away from burning hydrocarbons and move us to “renewable” energy. It has been in circulation for months in the Wisconsin Legislature, and was a product of a task force convened by Governor Jim Doyle to look at global warming.

It was always questionable how much the bill had to do with jobs, and now it’s even questionable how much it has to do with clean energy.

Unless, that is, you call hydropower – power generated by dams – clean. It certainly is renewable because the rivers always run, but river rats have always been suspect of hydro because of the damage it does to rivers. (And, in developing countries, the damage it does to people who get displaced by the flooding for the reservoirs.)

It’s very unlikely we’ll see any new hydro dams in Wisconsin (all the good spots are already taken), so if you want hydropower in this state, you get it from Manitoba, where they still build big dams on pristine rivers.

Hydropower was deemed “renewable” by the Global Warming Task Force and therefore deemed so in the legislation. That put it on par with wind and solar and biofuels and other things – all energy that can be produced in Wisconsin. But a little rat informed us about how power companies operating in Wisconsin were trying to wire the legislation to have all the power they could buy from Manitoba Hydro (a Canadian “crown” corporation) get counted as “renewable.” One analysis showed that the 5 biggest utilities in Wisconsin could get all their required renewable energy (the bill called for 25% from renewable sources by the year 2025) simply by connecting their wires to Manitoba hydro.

That would have undercut a fundamental premise of the CEJA legislation – encouraging the development of renewable energy generated in Wisconsin. Not to mention the new dam construction it might have triggered in Manitoba.

The bill was amended last week, and things appear to have gotten worse. The only tiny barrier to Manitoba Hydro providing ALL “renewable” energy in Wisconsin is some paperwork shuffled between Manitoba and Wisconsin “regarding the final licensure of two existing hydroelectric projects in Manitoba” (emphasis ours). (The quote is from the Wisconsin Legislative Council’s overview of changes to the bill.) That’s a pretty low threshold: native Canadians have fought with the utility over the decades, but there’s little history of Manitoba Hydro not getting its way, especially for dams already built.

CEJA has been compromised in other ways, and conservation groups are acting like it’s the drunk uncle at the party – entertaining at first, embarrassing as time went on. We’ll know its fate in a few days’ time.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Who Needs A Scenic River When There’s A Bridge To Build?

There’s a bridge to somewhere that nobody wants on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border, but there’s congresswoman who won’t let a mere federally protected river get in the way of a new bridge.

This story reminds Rat of the “bridge to nowhere” made infamous during the 2008 presidential campaign. A multi-million dollar bridge from the mainland to a barely inhabited island in Alaska, it became a symbol of government waste and pork. There was no small irony in that pork chop, in that Republican presidential candidate John McCain railed against such projects, and the Alaska porkchop/bridge was built with the blessing of his running-mate, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Rep. Michele Bachman of Minnesota is angry that a judge ruled against the construction of a new bridge over the St. Croix River at Stillwater. The St. Croix was among the first rivers to get a federal designation as wild and scenic in 1968. No matter, says Bachmann: the bridge must be built, and if the federal Wild and Scenic River designation is in the way, damn the designation: simply un-designate the river and build the bridge.

This is not Bachmann’s first toe-dip into controversy. She accused candidate Obama of being anti-American and recently claimed that the current health care reform proposal would allow a 13-year old to go to school, get an abortion at Planned Parenthood, and be home on the bus the same day.

Bachman’s bridge over the River Croix – opposed for over 20 years now, mostly because people fear it would metastasize exurban sprawl – is not likely to get built. There’s worse news for the scenic Lower St. Croix: after another dragged-out legal battle, a Twin Cities media tycoon got a green light from the Minnesota Supreme Court to build a small castle on a bluff of the river. River rats fond of the St. Croix fear the ruling will grease the skids for building more castles and change the scenery of the scenic Lower St. Croix forever.

Who needs a bridge when you can sue your way to the Supreme Court to get permission to build a house in a federal scenic riverway?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Sorting out the S*** from the Shinola....

There’s a buzz among river rats and other water watchdogs this week, as the Wisconsin State Journal’s three-part series on how the dairy industry is spreading its way, so to speak, across the Wisconsin landscape, to the dismay and anger of people who end up with 5,000 or 8,000 cows as neighbors, and feel like they had little say in the matter.

Rats who have infiltrated the alleyways of state government have known for a long time what the State Journal’s intrepid reporter Ron Seely quantified by ferreting out email records from the state Dept. of Natural Resources – that the dairy industry gets its way with regulators. This despite whining that they are overburdened with regulations. (They oughta compare notes with a city sewage treatment plant or a paper factory if they really want to know what scrutiny is.)

Rat has experienced first-hand the ways of the dairy industry’s biggest organizational cow, the Dairy Business Association (DBA). Getting its way has meant DBA spreading not just manure but outright falsehoods and near-slander of people who call them out. Several of us met with DBA representatives about a year ago to discuss legislation to limit manure contamination of drinking water. But the organization’s staff sent a “warning” to its members that thoroughly mischaracterized the intent of the policy.

When that brush fire was quelled, DBA’s executive director turned to attacking a well-respected and knowledgeable conservation professional no doubt seen by DBA as dangerous because he knows, intimately, the practices and shortcomings of the industry, and knows how those practices could be changed to minimize damage to resources.

Soon there will be legislation introduced in an attempt to limit, if not eliminate, contamination of people’s wells by manure and other wastes. Yes, it could be yet more regulation that the dairy industry loathes, and it will no doubt throw itself at it in opposition.

And none of it would be necessary if the actually acted proactively and responsibly and fixed the problem where it clearly could be fixed.

There’s not an industry in Wisconsin with poorer public relations right now than the dairy industry, despite all that wholesome family farm stuff they invoke. It wouldn’t take much to turn it around, but for now they’re going in the wrong direction.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

It's Getting Wild and Scenic...

....and not just as Wisconsin's great rivers start considering a thaw. The Rat's pals the River Alliance are hosting a festival again this year...the Wild and Scenic Film Festival on Tour, to be precise. March 9 at the Majestic Theatre in downtown Madison. Apparently, there will be food and beer and prizes...more than enough incentive to draw a River Rat into the city. Why not come down and join me? There'll be some great short films, including one called Big River by the scamps that made King Corn. We also heard there'll even be one about river that is something I'd bet most river rats haven't seen...and might not believe.

I know what you're thinking...downtown Madison? Better bring a bank roll. But not so fast skeptics...this night of enviro cinematic entertainment is just $10. Or, you can go large and spend $25, which will not just get you into the films, but will also get you into the rocking and rolling party afterwards (catered by Willy St. Coop), one free drink at that party, and best yet...a one year membership to the River Alliance of Wisconsin (regular price $35 clams). All for $25. Not too shabby.

Don't wait to get your tickets...last year's event was packing them in at the same venue. You savvy types can go to Brown Paper Tickets to grab some tickets, or if you trend a little more old school, stop into your local Fontana Sports store and they'll be happy to sell you a few. can even call River Alliance central at 608-257-2424 ext. 116 to sort yourself out. But regardless how you do it, do it. All the proceeds from this event go to support the River Alliance and their work to save Wisconsin's rivers. Pretty good value for money, this Rat thinks.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Will Dems Defy Doyle?

The line between politics and theatre is as thin as a one-page veto message. And there’s a big show coming up Feb. 23, when the stage is set for the state Assembly to take up Governor Doyle’s veto of a very popular bill to return the hiring of the natural resources secretary to the Natural Resources Board. Since the mid 1990s, the DNR secretary has been a hireling of the governor, which many allege has made politics flow into the agency like floodwater oozing around an old dam.

Contrary to his pronouncements going back to his first campaign for governor, Doyle vetoed the legislation, making it clear he prefers the current system – a system he has used the fullest extent in calling shots at DNR from the governor’s office.

At one point, overriding Doyle’s veto looked a chip shot. Enough Assembly Republicans joined majority Democrats to pass the bill in the first place last fall. Republicans relished the prospect of making Doyle look bad, if he was overridden by his fellow Dems.

But stuff happened on the way to the override vote next week. Doyle declared he was not running again, and Republican Scott Walker is running a strong race for governor. Republicans now drool over the prospect of a Governor “let’s have a lot less government” Walker naming, say, a Secretary (John) Gard as head of DNR. (That should send a shudder around the state.)

Even more interesting is the position of Assembly Democrats. Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan was heard telling a citizen on Conservation Lobby Day that his fellow Dems are reluctant to override Doyle’s veto for fear of making Doyle mad – that in fact, the votes were not there to override his DNR secretary veto.

But what leverage does a lame duck governor have, you ask, especially one with such bad relations with legislators?

Money – federal stimulus money that Doyle can hand out like candy to the good kids who keep in line, and also campaign money. Speaker Sheridan’s having scheduled a vote may be a sign he’ll take his chances offending Doyle, who could boost Sheridan’s political prospects by sending stimulus money to build something in the rusting behemoth of the Janesville General Motors plant in Sheridan’s district.

Then there’s the candy of campaign money Doyle can hand out to individual Assembly Democrats. It’s not much – only $500 per year for Assembly candidates – but in an unprecedented move, Doyle has donated money to the campaign committees of both Senate and Assembly Democrats – $3,000 to each committee in late December.

We shall see on Feb. 23 if Assembly Democrats have the courage to do the right thing. Their accomplishments look increasingly paltry as time winds down on this legislative session. They are sitting on a simple minimum wage law, and they seem completely captured by the payday loan industry’s lobbying and campaign cash (including Sheridan himself getting captured by a payday loan Mata Hari whom he dated).

Rat enjoys good theatre; nothing like the suspense and drama and pathos of a well-acted play. But Rat smells a rat in the Assembly Democrats’ piece de theatre next week – it is a stage show for conservation interests, to say, “Hey, we tried”? Conservationists, even while calling their legislators to push for a veto override, should be prepared for disappointment.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Creepy Carp Story Gets Ever Creepier

Rat has been keeping you apprised a fellow vermin’s progress (hmm, “Vermin’s Progress” – possible book title) up the Mississippi, up the Illinois River -- and now just one great leap over an electric fence and through a few easy-to-pass-through navigation locks, to clean new territory -- Lake Michigan.

Not to be alarmist or anything, but get ready, Cheeseheads: these finned monsters could be headed your way via your favorite river if they get to Lake Michigan: West Bend, Appleton, Mequon, Packwaukee, Portage.

First, the biology of this vermin’s progress, and then some “human geology,” and then the politics. They have found DNA evidence of Asian carp well past the electric fence (barrier) on the Illinois River. First they found some in a shipping channel well away from Lake Michigan. Now it is reported that more Asian carp DNA is found north of the city of Chicago. That’s one long haul from the Illinois River, and that’s creepy.

Here’s the human geology part, if you can call it that. Chicago did not want to dump its shit into its drinking water, so it re-engineered the Chicago River to flow away from Lake Michigan and to the Illinois River. Because that route has now been developed, the Asian carp has an entry ramp to Lake Michigan, and of course to every river that feeds it.

Now for the politics. A bunch of Great Lakes states wants to crack open a century-old agreement that lets Chicago do what I described above – send trillions of gallons of water a year out of Lake Michigan and down the Mississippi.

Them’s HUGE fightin’ words for Illinois – including the state’s current favorite son, Barack Obama, whose solicitor general got the administration behind Illinois’ pathetically weak case to not revisit that water agreement because the state thinks the Asian carp is no big deal.

People are starting to ask whether the Obama regime’s big investment in funding for the Great Lakes might be money down a sewage canal if the Asian carp gets established in Lake Michigan (and presumably in other Great Lakes). Scientists seem to disagree just how much they’ll take over.

But check any video on YouTube these days and watch these critters. You decide if you think they might do just fine if they found their way up, say, the Root River at Racine.

Last word: Rat’s not nostalgic about the golden age of the newspaper, but I do lament the loss of good hard-headed reporting and journalism. It seems alive and well, at least for this topic, with superb reporting about if by Dan Egan of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Here’s that paper’s latest coverage of where they found carp DNA.