Monday, May 31, 2010

Volunteering for Nature

Watersheds – the land, water, and living things -- depend on people.

In October 2008, the Great Lakes–St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact became law, the culmination of years of negotiation by a laundry list of regional, national, and international organizations, comprised of thoughtful and dedicated people. At heart, the Compact is a conservation agreement like no other in the sweeping scope of its water management coordination. Eight states along with Ontario and Quebec are recognized as stewards of this shared great resource.

The Milwaukee River Basin includes three major rivers – the Milwaukee, the Menomonee, and the Kinnickinnic -- that flow to Lake Michigan, the second largest of the Great Lakes. This watershed, dominated by the City of Milwaukee’s urbanized area, is the focus of the Milwaukee RiverKeepers.

The organization participated in the formulation of the Compact but they haven’t rested on their laurels since the passage of the Federal law nearly two years ago. The group’s advocacy, still a large part of their work, speaks to sound land use planning decisions. The mission statement echoes and extends themes found in the Compact’s guidelines: assessment of management strategies, conservation and improvement of water quality and wildlife habitat. Assessing the health of the streams is the first step.

Monitoring projects seek to take the pulse of the rivers. The RiverKeepers have instituted a citizen-based program boasting 58 volunteers who gather data using consistent standardized methodology. This information is important for assessing the condition of Milwaukee’s river system over time. Here is a map showing some of the results of this work.

One volunteer monitor is Erica King, a Waukesha native (from just over the watershed divide). She recently completed the rigorous two-day training program. “I signed up because I really care about the health of our streams and thought I could be of value with my past experience with stream monitoring. I also wanted to help give back to the community” says Ms. King. She will be doing “the level two monitoring which is a little more advanced. It includes additional testing for water quality and the use of more accurate (and expensive) equipment.” Ms. King samples two stream sites for various water quality parameters once a month. Volunteers enter the collected data into the Department of Natural Resources’ database to determine the health and habitat value to the stream.

The monthly commitment pays big dividends. These data help to shape stream management decisions that affect the quality of life in the larger community. And for Ms. King, the responsibility is one she relishes. “It’s just really enjoyable and I feel connects you more to nature and the resources in your own community.” With the combined efforts of volunteers such as Ms. King and organizations like the RiverKeepers, our lakes and rivers will be nurtured and improved.

The health of our watersheds and ultimately our communities really does boil down to individual people committing to give back just a little.

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