Ellen Barnard never imagined that she would be the founder of a new local river group. But like may people around the Cherokee Marsh, within the Upper Yahara River watershed just north of Madison, she was compelled to act: the large housing development proposed for her neighborhood is progressing rapidly, and the thought of losing everything she loves about the area was too much to take.
Despite good laws like the Clean Water Act, and hundreds of state and local laws and ordinances, every day in Wisconsin there is a reason for ordinary people like Ellen to be outraged, and organize to protect their river. Manure spills kill fish, Milwaukee sewage overflows foul Lake Michigan, and construction sites send three times more soil to rivers on a per-acre basis than a cornfield. Political pressure not to enforce water quality laws and economic pressures to create jobs, build thirsty water parks and golf courses, all work against river protection.
This is why more and more river and watershed protection groups spring up across the state, now numbering around 160. People like Ellen take their newfound awareness of the issues affecting their home rivers and organize their communities to find real solutions.
Many river groups start up in ways similar to Ellen’s Friends of Cherokee Marsh and the Upper Yahara Watershed. Groups form around one particular burning issue, which builds energy for community organizing. However, when that original issue eventually gets resolved—the housing development gets built, the factory closes down, the dam gets taken out, the farm cleans up its act—groups find themselves without direction. They wonder why they don’t have the members they need, the volunteers they want, and the leaders to continue the good work of the organization. This happens regardless of if they won or lost their fight.
All the groups that continue to have energy and success have one thing in common: they are aware of all the important issues affecting their river, now and into the future. They also understand many of the following factors:
• Solving the issue must result in a real improvement in the water body they have organized to protect
• People should get a sense of their own power, as citizens exercising their democratic rights
• They must address an economic angle that would benefit the community
• Their issue must be easily understood, and people must see a path to winning
• They must know what “success” would be, and have a clear timeframe for it
• The group builds leadership through its work on the issue
• Their organizing alters the relations of power by giving strength to local citizens
• Their issue must be presented in a way that builds unity amongst the community and appeals its core values.
River groups may form when they have a big issue to take on, but those groups that sustain themselves and succeed are mindful of many of these factors. And as they succeed, they find the keys to unlocking the mysterious nature of grassroots organizing.
Look on the River Alliance of Wisconsin’s website, www.wisconsinrivers.org, or on this Wisconsin River Groups Blog, www.wisconsinrivergroups.blogspot.com, for information about these groups. Learn how you can help them or, just as good, learn how they can help you.