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Volunteers monitor water quality
Cash-strapped state welcomes expanded role for citizen activists
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 networks.

"It shows that they care," said Randy Schumacher, a DNR regional supervisor in Waukesha. "That's kind of cool."

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 management.

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 basin.

Some reservations
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.







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