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Thinking about the future of Wisconsin’s water

April 30, 2018

From the Great Lakes Basin to the Mississippi River, water has undeniably played a role in shaping Wisconsin’s history, but the future of Wisconsin’s water is becoming less clear. United by a shared concern for water quality, citizens, researchers and media professionals from across the state came together April 26, 2018 at the Pyle Center in Madison for the Wisconsin Water Future workshop.

Hosted by the Wisconsin Humanities Council Beyond the Headlines program, The “Wisconsin’s Water Future” workshop sought to inform and educate Wisconsin citizens about water issues and provide basic resources to help individuals monitor water quality in their community. Speakers, including academic and industry professionals from across disciplines, shared their knowledge, addressing the social, political, scientific and industry concerns impacting the water systems.

For speaker Dylan Bizhikiins Jennings, Director of Public Information for the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission and Tribal Council Member for the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, this workshop was a chance for him to engage with a wider audience. Jennings shared the work he is doing with other tribal members to manage the health of the freshwater ecosystems while maintaining the harvest grounds for hunting, fishing, and gathering for generations to come.

For Jennings, taking care of the land is important because it’s part of the spirit law, an original treaty between the Anishinaabe people and all the creatures of the natural world. Living by the spirit doctrine means practicing reciprocity for land and its inhabitants, which instilled in Jennings a profound respect for nature, especially water.

“We often hear the phrase ‘water is life’ and that’s the absolute truth,” Jennings said. “Everything we do, the way we utilize our sovereignty to protect the natural environment, the water, the rivers and streams, we don’t do that just for ourselves, we do that for everybody.”

Tribal culture has what Jennings calls a ‘Tenth Generation Mindset’ which prioritizes taking care of the land so it can be passed onto future generations. He said this belief shouldn’t only be an Ojibwe practice - it should be for everyone.

Steve Carpenter, UW-Madison Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies Professor Emeritus and Former Director of the Center for Limnology, shared Jennings’ hope for the future, but he worries that a shift in cultural perception might not be enough. Having spent much of his academic career studying Madison’s very own Lake Mendota and the environmental changes that have happened over the last 50 years, Carpenter has seen some concerning evidence. Specifically, he says, major events in just the last ten years, such as records rainfall events in 2008 followed by subsequent flooding and the introduction of two invasive species to the local lake water ecosystem, have set the future of Lake Mendota on course for potentially dangerous waters.

These predictions for Lake Mendota’s future are based in part on climate models of the Yahara Watershed region. Carpenter uses these models to better understand what is happening to the lake ecosystem. By closely monitoring the lake, Carpenter can gain not only a better understanding of the problems Lake Mendota faces, but also insight into what solutions are available to solve those problems. Overall, Carpenter believes that two major challenges for the water system, phosphorus pollution and invasive species populations, are issue that can be solved, but only if the community wants to do something about it.

“We have to change or we’re going to lose our water resources,” Carpenter said. “We simply have to change.”


The “Wisconsin’s Water Future” workshop is part of the Beyond the Headlines series, which aims to educate everyday citizens and media professionals alike by providing them with the tools and resources to learn about issues that matter in Wisconsin. Beyond the Headlines is a project from the Wisconsin Humanities Council.