After our Fall Retreat, Water and Its Ripple Effects, in Milwaukee, we reached out to influential figures — including activists, authors, artists, and business leaders — to share how they would like to see more funds directed to water issues. Their responses show how water touches all parts of our life, and point to the importance of building coalitions and citizen power to protect this vital resource.
Martin Luther King Jr. said “Legislation may not change the heart but it can restrain the heartless.” We have allowed the explosive growth in energy extraction such as fracking and tar sands to threaten the waters of North America, particularly the Great Lakes. Most recently, shipments of chemical-laced bitumen from the Alberta tar sands are travelling down the St Lawrence River, home to the endangered Beluga whale, destined for Europe. The Great Lakes are already in peril and allowing the dirtiest forms of energy on earth to be shipped on barges and tankers is sheer folly. We need to build a citizen’s movement around the Great Lakes Basin to declare the Great Lakes a public trust and protected bioregion and put a halt to this newest, most dangerous threat yet to these precious waters.
— Maude Barlow, National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians
There are few challenges as fundamental, and as critically important to society’s basic functioning, as water. The connections between water and agriculture, climate, transportation, urban design, energy, and open space are relatively easy to see. But if we peel back the layers we’ll see that water runs through commerce, both urban and rural poverty, mental health, spirituality, community resilience, governance and citizen engagement, and the list goes on. If I were granted three wishes, I’d probably direct funds toward: 1) The energy-water-food nexus, 2) Water and public health and 3) Citizen engagement and transparent governance.
— Lynn Broaddus, President of Broadview Collaborative
We need to fund new strategies that can activate a much broader base of leadership on behalf of our waters. A commons-based approach — one in which we all have a stake in the health of our waters and must all share in their stewardship as much as their benefits — can develop a cross-discipline, trans-border network of people from around the Great Lakes. Many groups have not had a voice in water policy yet are passionate about the Lakes. We also need to fund strategies that will grow understanding of a very old form of governance, the public trust doctrine, as well as innovative, even improvisational forms of governance, like the rights of Mother Nature and approaches to guardianship that can build a new water ethic.
— Ann Brummitt, Co-Director Milwaukee Water Commons
We would benefit from additional funding toward investigation and prevention of freshwater pollution from industrial sources. With the rapid expansion in oil and gas development across the country in recent years, some communities are now dealing with new contaminants in new places. It is unfortunate that these new sources are now in populated areas; however, this situation provides an opportunity for more community involvement in protecting and managing freshwater. Funding, for example, could go towards citizen science projects for monitoring and data collection, building community capacity to work with and hold accountable companies operating locally, or civic engagement campaigns to get citizens involved in local decision-making around freshwater in their community.
— Gretchen Goldman, Lead Analyst, The Center for Science and Democracy, Union of Concerned Scientists
No matter who you are or where you live, wetlands affect your life. This is because wetlands are the great regulators of the waters entering our lakes, rivers and streams. Wetlands capture storm water, reduce flood peaks, remove sediment and nutrients, recharge groundwater, and provide fish and wildlife habitat. Unfortunately, many people do not understand the important roles wetlands play protecting our communities and our watersheds. As a result, wetlands receive far less attention and funding than our lakes, rivers and streams. To turn this around, funding is needed to raise the awareness of wetlands among landowners, communities and decision makers. Investing in wetlands provides benefits to all our waters.
— Tracy Hames, Executive Director of Wisconsin Wetlands Association
I believe that the future of our freshwater conservation efforts begins with inspiring the upcoming generation of scientists, educators, and leaders to understand and care for this precious natural commodity. Spending time in our lakes, rivers, and streams can be the catalyst for caring about our natural world. Educational programs assist in a cultural shift where society understands the critical need to protect our fresh water. Funding to spur more human-nature interactions would be well spent.
— Jessica Jens, Executive Director of Riveredge Nature Center
The fresh drinking water everyone takes for granted in the US is not available to 1.1 billion people on this planet. Lack of access to safe drinking water affects one third of the countries in the world (and one out of every six people). We need to fund innovations in providing sources of clean water and implementing sustainable engineering projects to bring clean water to these communities. There would be no greater goodwill that could be generated for our country per dollar spent than by providing clean water in underserved regions. This is the real water bucket challenge.
— Russ Klisch, President of Lakefront Brewery, Milwaukee
Citizens of every community should understand that ‘all property is waterfront property; a river starts at your front door’. What we have found with our work with the City as Living Laboratory framework is that a variety of means of engagement are needed: artists can do projects in collaboration with scientists who study watersheds. These projects can make abstract issues tangible. But there needs to be ongoing programs—walks with scientists, water currency projects, or readings by poets who can bring attention to the sensuous nature of water. We need support not only from the top down but the bottom up.
— Mary Miss, Artist
Because the greatest threat to freshwater will be drought and other climatic changes caused by greenhouse gas pollution, it makes sense that the first priority is to sequester carbon and dramatically reduce emissions. The big opportunities with big payoffs both for climate stability and for freshwater will be innovations in no-till agriculture, new forest policies that manage for carbon sequestration, progress in energy conservation, and transition to a renewable-energy economy. If we can’t do this, it will be immeasurably harder, maybe impossible, to protect the flourishing of the freshwater systems.
Because the Earth is beautiful and astonishing and life-giving, celebrate the interconnections of all life. Radically re-imagine how to live on Earth joyously and gratefully, and honor our obligations to the future to leave a world as rich in possibility as our own. At every chance, align human practices with the great creative and healing forces of the planet.
— Kathleen Dean Moore, Author and Philosopher
When communities organize to buy back their water from private companies, there will sometimes be urgent needs for financing in the form of donations or loans. It would be good to have funders poised to assist when these opportunities arise. It is also critical that the form of ownership and management of water be designed to ensure that the water is not later re-privatized. Many times, the design of governance is overlooked or communities cannot afford to invest in creating a solid legal structure. To that end, it is critical to ensure that funds are available for communities to invest in legal services to design governance structures that keep water in the commons.
— Janelle Orsi, Executive Director of the Sustainable Economies Law Center
Rather than list the policy issues that are important, I’d like to suggest that an important change/addition in the funding for freshwater protection would be in how campaigns are run. Technology and best practices have taken huge leaps forward in recent years, giving us the ability to run campaigns that are more sophisticated. This includes using the file of eligible voters to engage citizens, micro-targeting of TV and web ads, and social media.
At Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters we have found that, despite a political climate that is hostile to environmental policy-making, we have been able to succeed in the legislative process by utilizing these types of best practices and technologies combined with traditional advocacy, citizen engagement, and earned media. By investing in organizations and campaigns that are utilizing these practices, funders are investing in both the current issue campaign and in issues that will be fought in the future.
— Kerry Schumann, Executive Director of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters
Thanks so much for asking this question to the speakers at our Milwaukee conference. It’s helpful to hear their distilled responses and to give us many ideas and diverse ways to direct our funds and support for water conservation, as well as climate change and other important causes.