Volunteers monitor water quality
Cash-strapped state welcomes expanded role for citizen
By Scott Williams
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Web Posted January 31st, 2005
Hiking down to a river or stream to learn how water quality
is measured has been a fun outdoor activity for generations
of Wisconsin schoolchildren and nature lovers.
Now it is becoming serious business.
Concerned that state budget cuts are hampering government
water-quality monitoring, private environmental groups
are raising funds and organizing volunteers to serve as
watchdogs over pollution and other issues.
What's more, the state Department of Natural Resources
has changed its attitude about accepting help from amateurs
and is encouraging the expansion of volunteer water-quality
"It shows that they care," said Randy Schumacher,
a DNR regional supervisor in Waukesha. "That's kind
In Milwaukee County, one environmental group is considering
hiring paid staff for the first time to coordinate its
river monitors and other water-protection programs.
Another group in Waukesha County plans to establish itself
as a non-profit charity so it can solicit private donations
to pay for training and equipping volunteers.
And a growing network of 200 volunteers based in Jefferson
County has been mobilized to keep a watchful eye over
a river basin that flows into 10 counties.
"There's an awful lot of water in Wisconsin,"
said Charles Shong, chairman of the City of Pewaukee-based
Southeast Wisconsin Fox River Partnership, which hopes
to raise enough money to train and equip 10 volunteers
initially. "It's a start."
For decades, schoolchildren and others have ventured
down to the banks of their local rivers and streams to
learn how to collect water samples and check for insects
or other organisms indicative of water quality.
Since the early 1990s, the DNR has supported such activities
with its Water Action Volunteers program, in partnership
with the University of Wisconsin Extension.
But while that program has succeeded at promoting environmental
awareness and education, it has yielded little scientifically
significant data for DNR biologists overseeing water-quality
Kris Stepenuck, coordinator of the Water Action Volunteers
program, said dwindling state resources and a growing
respect for volunteer activists are combining to elevate
the role of private groups. In Wisconsin and elsewhere,
Stepenuck said, a "revolution" is under way
in government environmental agencies that find themselves
increasingly reliant on private citizens for help. The
DNR hopes to launch a pilot project by 2006 with a volunteer
network selected to collect data from a specific river
Acknowledging that some agency insiders remain leery of
using private citizens for sensitive work, Stepenuck said:
"There's a lot of questions that need to be answered."
The issue arises on the heels of sweeping state budget
cuts to close a budget deficit two years ago, with more
cuts looming as the result of a new projected deficit
of $1.6 billion.
Schumacher said the DNR has less flexibility in setting
spending priorities and is unable to dedicate as much
money to the speculative activity of monitoring rivers
and streams for problems that might not even exist.
Moving to pick up the slack are private volunteer groups
that have long dedicated themselves to nurturing Wisconsin's
21 major river basins, stretching from the Rock River
along the Illinois border to the Iron River and others
flowing into Lake Superior.
Such groups typically recruit volunteers to make water-quality
checks at least once a month at the many creeks and streams
that feed into the major rivers of their home region.
The Milwaukee River Basin Partnership is embarking on
a new fund-raising drive to step up its efforts at watching
over the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic rivers.
Angie Tornes, a board member of the partnership, cited
state budget cuts and the loss of administrative government
support as one reason the group wants to hire paid employees
for the first time to coordinate water-quality monitoring
and other activities.
"We're gearing up now," she said.
Training and equipping a single volunteer for water-quality
monitoring generally costs about $300.
Shong, whose Fox River partnership recently incorporated,
said the group will solicit donations from large companies,
including some typically associated with water pollution.
Some of the proceeds might also be used to pay DNR staffers
to study any serious water-quality issues that are uncovered
in the Fox River basin, which extends primarily into Waukesha,
Kenosha, Racine and Walworth counties.
Another group hoping to broaden the reach of its volunteers
is the Rock River Coalition, based in Jefferson County,
which monitors a basin that covers about 3,800 square
miles in south-central Wisconsin.
With 200 volunteers already, the coalition plans another
training program March 5 for newcomers.