Fighting CAFOs & Hi-Cap wells

Last week, in my role as Chair of the Goose Lake Watershed District, I attended a meeting of the Central Sands Water Action Coalition (CSWAC) Steering Committee, which was held in the barn at the Fresh for Life Organic farm in Central Wisconsin.

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CSWAC Chair Skip Hansen runs a meeting of the Steering Committee

CSWAC has been waging a battle to preserve Wisconsin’s precious groundwater for the past few years as huge corporate agri-business interests have pressured Wisconsin’s Governor and legislature to pass legislation allowing those concerns to drain Wisconsin’s groundwater through the use of high capacity wells. Sadly, despite overwhelming grassroots opposition to the legislation, and scientific concerns about how those wells drain Wisconsin’s aquifers and lower lake levels, the legislature passed SB 76 and the Governor signed the bill now known as 2017 Wisconsin Act 10, which among other things allows high capacity well permits to remain perpetually renewed even if a well goes bad or the land is sold.

Undaunted, CSWAC will continue to fight these water draining corporate activities, and is doing so in court. In addition, with its membership of nearly 70 lake and river associations, lake districts and conservation groups, representing over 50,000 members and their families, in a unanimous vote of the nearly 50 members of its steering committee present at last week’s meeting, CSWAC agreed to sign onto a moratorium of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) proposed by Sustain Rural Wisconsin.

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CAFO pictured on Sustain Rural Wisconsin’s website

The moratorium proposal states:

Wisconsin citizens’ right to clean water, clean air and a good quality of life is endangered by water pollution frequently caused by industrial agriculture. Wisconsin’s industrial animal factories generate more manure than crops can safely use as fertilizer leading to excess phosphorus and nitrate levels in the soil and groundwater. As a result, our local streams, lakes, and waterways are quickly becoming damaged beyond repair.

Therefore, we call upon Wisconsin to declare a temporary moratorium on the permitting and construction of new and expanding Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). Before Wisconsin allows new construction or expansions of CAFO facilities, the state must provide a solution for our existing manure overload problem.  No facility should be allowed to pollute local waterways and groundwater without a set enforcement policy addressing the cleanup of contamination if a problem should arise.

Sustain Rural Wisconsin explains the rationale for this moratorium as follows:

Water Quantity – In certain areas of the state, primarily the Central Sands, lakes, streams and wells are drying up due to large-scale agriculture. A solid body of research shows that this loss of surface water is directly related to depletion of groundwater aquifers by high capacity wells. The depletion of groundwater not only impacts water loss but presents a public health risk as drinking water sources dry up and any pollutants such as nitrates and bacteria become more concentrated.

Phosphorus & Nitrate Overloading – Agricultural practices of CAFOs are a significant source of sediment and phosphorus in Wisconsin due to high erosion rates and high phosphorus levels in agricultural soils.  Croplands supply 76 % of the sediment and 65 % of the phosphorus load in Wisconsin runoff. Nitrate is the most widespread groundwater contaminant in Wisconsin and, on a statewide basis, about 90% of the nitrate detected in groundwater is from agricultural sources (fertilizer, manure, and legumes).  Phosphorus and nitrates contribute to algal blooms in rivers, streams, and lakes and have led to hypoxic areas (dead zones) in our estuaries, Great Lakes, and Oceans.

Human Health & Welfare – Industrial agriculture can emit toxins that cause a host of illnesses for neighbors and workers (asthma, headaches, nausea, diarrhea, burning eyes, other respiratory problems) and can cause mood problems (depression, confusion, fatigue, tension) for people living and working near factory farms. In addition, the overuse of antibiotics in CAFOs facilitates drug-resistant bacteria, which is a grave danger to people.

Economic Impacts – Counties with more CAFOs trend toward lower income growth, fewer business, and less commercial activity. In addition, property values can decrease near factory farms resulting in decreased property tax revenue to support local services such as road construction and maintenance, recycling, emergency medical services and police/fire protection.

I will bring this moratorium to the next meeting of the Goose Lake Watershed District to propose that we join the dozens of organizations and communities that have already signed onto it. You can ask your local unit of government or any other organization interested in preserving Wisconsin’s environment to join the CAFO moratorium by signing on here. Individuals can sign on here. After all, if we cannot preserve plentiful clean water for all of us to enjoy, what kind of future are we leaving for our children and grandchildren?

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

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Sustaining our Dreams

One of the great pleasures of life is to fulfill one’s dreams. I have been very fortunate to fulfill a number of my dreams, including finding my wife, Sheryl, with whom I have had a loving 34 year marriage; raising a deeply thoughtful and caring son, Josh, who is turning into a mature young man; engaging in a successful career as a public interest civil rights attorney for over 31 years, and living in a lovely nearly 100 year old home in welcoming neighborhood for nearly 25 years.

Sustaining each of those dreams takes effort.

  • Marriage is a constant set of intricate negotiations that, when successful, allows each partner to maintain their own independence, while simultaneously allowing the partnership to flourish.
  • Raising a child is perhaps the most difficult and rewarding thing one can do. As I have told my son on many occasions, parents do not receive an instruction manual, and all the parenting books in the world do not anticipate every single situation parents encounter while raising their children.
  • My legal career has flourished in many ways, but it has also had its challenges, particularly when two employers chose to terminate my services, failing to appreciate my efforts for the greater good.
  • While we cherish our beautiful home and neighborhood, its age requires annual maintenance and we anticipate losing some of our dearest neighbors in the coming year.

Perhaps the dream that continues to fulfill me the most is our ownership of 86 beautiful acres of land in Adams County, Wisconsin, on Goose Lake. The sparsely populated area was made famous by Aldo Leopold in his iconic environmental tome, A Sand County Almanac, the descriptions therein could truly be descriptions of our land and the wildlife that we share it with. We keep a copy at our home on Goose Lake which I regularly re-read.

When we bought the land, it was completely undeveloped. There were 2 farm fields which had not been farmed in many years, acres of virgin oak forest, acres of wetlands, and a 2 track road to a camp site with a fire ring of rocks. Initially, we started with the basics, drilling a well and installing a hand pump, building an outhouse, and putting up a full time wall tent for camping.

Eventually, after saving our money, we were able to build a dream vacation home, which of course, needs regular maintenance. Around the same time that we built that home, about 13 years ago, we engaged in another dream fulfilling project. The location of our home is about 1/3 of a mile in from the County Highway along a gravel driveway. The initial part of that driveway was prone to snow drifts due to the slope of the hill and the emptiness of the farm field to the north of the road. We did not want to install an unsightly snow fence, so instead we planted 2,500 spruce and pine saplings in the scrubbier of the 2 farm fields we own that abuts our driveway.

Watching those tiny saplings grow into a forest full of trees, many of which are over 20 feet tall now, has been truly inspiring. However, like all dreams, it takes work to sustain the forest we planted. This past weekend, I thinned about 15 trees, giving 3 of the spruce tops to friends for their holiday decorations.

I will leave the cut trees to dry and cut them up for firewood next year, as I did with last year’s cuttings.

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While this may seem idyllic, it takes hard work and I feel my body’s age increasingly each year. Although somehow, doing hard work to sustain a dream always seems a bit easier than other chores.

In addition, sustaining this dream includes unanticipated work, such as dealing with invasive species. After cutting firewood and thinning our spruce and pine forest, I turned to attacking the invasive Buckthorn that appeared for the first time this fall, at the edge of the spruce and pine trees we planted along the county highway. I prefer to avoid using toxic chemicals on our land, so I was glad to discover that someone at the University of Wisconsin developed a non-toxic method of suffocating the Buckthorn stumps with black bags. Fortunately, I was able to accomplish this task before the snow came down the next day.

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For as long as I live, I will continue to dream. Accomplishing and sustaining my dreams is what makes life worth living.

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For more information on how Jeff Spitzer-Resnick can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact him by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.

Playing with Whales

For the past week, my wife and I have enjoyed vacationing in Nova Scotia, where neither of us had ever been before. It is very beautiful, with vast forests, mountains, lakes and of course, many miles of Atlantic ocean coast line. We attempted to go whale watching early in our trip in Cape Breton. Alas, the whales did not cooperate and although we had a lovely boat trip, we did not see any whales.

Now, we are down on the southern coast, and  yesterday we decided to go on another whale watching excursion in the Bay of Fundy, which is well known for its 16 foot tides. In fact, in Annapolis Royal (the first European settlement in Canada), Nova Scotia Power operates North America’s only Tidal Power Station (check out this video for an explanation of how it works).

As we boarded the boat, I informed the captain, that my wife and I were disappointed that we didn’t see whales on our previous excursion in Cape Breton. He smiled and said that while he could not guarantee a sighting, he succeeded in finding whales 99.9% of the time.

Sure enough, not long after our boat headed out of the channel and into the larger sea, we spotted two Humpback whales, the guides told us they were a mother and daughter, the daughter being about 8 months old and recently weaned. They estimated their size at approximately 45 feet long, with the mother being somewhat longer, about the size of our boat.

What happened next surprised everyone, including the experienced crew. The mother and daughter whale apparently decided that they would  enjoy our company and they simply swam back and forth under and around the boat, even nudging it occasionally. They were so close, we could see their eyes and the barnacles which had attached to them.

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Everyone on board, including the Captain and crew, watched the playful whales with sheer amazement. The Captain and crew repeatedly exclaimed that this playful show was truly exceptional. Perhaps my wife and I were meant not to see whales in Cape Breton as had we seen them, we may not have taken this second excursion.

Earlier in our Canadian trip, my son (who is currently studying abroad) asked me why Canadians have their heads screwed on right? While I cannot say for sure, I do know that even as a teenager growing up in Detroit during the Vietnam war, every time I crossed the border into Canada, I felt cleaner (even though Windsor is not the cleanest Canadian city).

Maybe Canadians understand that their destiny is shared with nature, and that in order to succeed, they need to play with nature, not fight against it. Given their harsh winters, one might imagine that an American response would be of conquest, but Canadians instead build tidal power plants and play with whales.

Of course, like all nations, Canadians have some troubled history. But, Canadians took a monumental step when they enshrined the rights of aboriginal people, generally known as First Nations, in their Constitution in 1982. The term elevates First Nations to the status of “first among equals” alongside the English and French as founding nations of Canada.

Perhaps, if more people in the United States saw our richly diverse heritage in this way, that each component of our nation’s varied tapestry is just a first among equals, we would experience less racism and xenophobia. Maybe, more people just need to go play with whales.

As I write this, here is my view:

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The Earth’s natural beauty helps refresh me for systems change efforts to come. After all, if we can play with whales, we can overcome whale size problems. It just takes the right combination of people with the right approach.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Weed Harvesting

Though I was an American history major in college, the best class I took was Practical Botany. During that class, I learned the definition of a weed. It is quite simple. Weeds are plants that are in an undesired location. For example, grass growing in your vegetable garden is a weed, even though it is not a weed in your lawn.

Healthy lakes include plant life. In some cases, the plant life is so abundant that it becomes a weed because it interferes with the healthy growth of other species or other desired uses, such as safe boating and swimming.

Goose Lake, where I chair the Watershed District, is a very healthy lake. In fact, it contains designated critical habitats which support a myriad of plant and animal life, as detailed in this report.

Maintaining a healthy balance between sustaining the critical habitat which thrives in Goose Lake, and allowing the lake to be enjoyed by residents and visitors is included within the responsibility of the Goose Lake Watershed District (GLWD). One of our responsibilities is to harvest weeds from the non-critical habitat. A few years ago, we bought a used weed harvester. Since then, we have been able to harvest the weeds as needed instead of depending on the schedule of an unreliable contractor.

However, most people think of weeds as something to pull and get rid of instead of harvest. Given our respect for the environment, we harvest the weeds by transporting those we cut to a nearby organic farmer. The nutrition from the weeds is thereby returned to the earth to grow healthy, organic food.

As you can see, there are a lot of weeds to turn into organic compost. A local homeowner, Fred Mess, has done a marvelous job maintaining our old harvester, including fashioning parts when used parts are no longer available. He volunteers his time to both maintain the harvester and harvest weeds.

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Fred Mess with a full load of weeds, approximately 3500 pounds.

Fred has also trained others to run the harvester as no organization should rely on a single person for a critical task.

Since we also maintain the public beach and boat launch, last weekend while Fred and John were harvesting weeds from the lake, a few of us raked weeds from the beach to make the beach safe and pleasant for swimming.

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Nick Homan raking the beach weeds in order to transport them to an organic farm along with the weeds cut by the harvester.

Harvesting weeds to improve our lake and convert an undesired plant into organic food is a perfect example of environmental systems change. It is also a metaphor for systems change in many other areas of life.

Rather than simply getting rid of things that are undesirable through seclusion and restraint in our schools, or incarceration, the better approach is to use tools such as positive behavioral support and restorative justice as a form of positive harvesting.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Mission Accomplished

Systems change usually involves many  steps and can take many years. In some cases, such as battling racism, the job is never really completely done, as progress is usually incremental. But occasionally, my work allows me to celebrate completing a multi-step complex job and one week ago, I could indeed say, “Mission accomplished!”

About 4 years ago, I was elected as Chair of the Goose Lake Watershed District (GLWD), which has public authority to preserve and protect Goose Lake, located in Adams County, Wisconsin, in what is known as the Central Sands area of the state, made famous by the classic environmental text, Aldo Leopold’s, Sand County Almanacwhich I highly recommend to those who have yet to read it. I have read it multiple times and learn something every time I read it.

While Goose Lake is pristine in many ways, hosting a wide range of both water and land wildlife and diverse botanical features, about 40 years ago, someone who developed about 20 vacation homes across from a small island on the lake, known as Gilligan’s Island, built a boardwalk and bridge to the island. While it was charming in many ways, as nobody had maintained this wooden structure for 40 years, it was falling apart and had become quite dangerous, with broken boards and protruding rusty nails.

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When I became chair, I was determined to either remove or repair the bridge. However, I quickly found out that the original developer who sold the parcels on that section of the lake and built the bridge also attached joint ownership of the island to each property owner’s deed. Initially, the GLWD explored the possibility of buying the island in order to deal with the dilapidated bridge. However, the deeds were also restricted in a way that prevented property owners from selling off only their island ownership.

The GLWD recognized that we were dealing with our neighbors, so antagonizing them was simply never an option. Instead, we decided that we would regularly hold public meetings and send written updates on this project to property owners over a period of about 2 years. We always welcomed calls and e-mails, and what became apparent from these various contacts is that the property owners wanted the GLWD to solve this problem, despite the legal restrictions around property ownership.

At GLWD’s last Annual Meeting, we approved issuing a request for proposals to remove the bridge. We determined that since we had authority over the lake, we could remove it due to its dangerous condition. We found a good contractor whom we could afford, and when I spoke with him, I let him know that we would continue to inform the property owners every step of the way, and if there were any concerns from them, we would have to resolve them first. We also included a clause in the contract that required the contractor to avoid damaging any neighboring property.

Once a demolition date was set we notified property owners providing them with 10 days to notify me of any concerns. Hearing none, I informed the contractor that he could proceed. Last week, after a crew of 3 worked for 3 days, the bridge was finally removed, and Goose Lake was returned to its natural state. They did an excellent job and I have approved payment to the contractor.

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While much of my work involves building bridges, in this case, it was necessary to remove one. I am really looking forward to spring when the ice melts and we can all see the lake return to its natural state without the dangerous bridge. Occasionally, my systems change work, allows me to say, “Mission accomplished!” Although it took a few years, it is a very satisfying feeling.

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For more information on how Jeff Spitzer-Resnick can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change, visit his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Skating on Thin Ice

I have lived in a 4 season climate my entire life except for one winter when I worked on a kibbutz in Israel. While winter weather certainly has its challenges, it also provides many opportunities to participate in outdoor sports that are simply unavailable without sufficient cold and snow.

For the past 30 winters, I have lived within walking distance of Tenney Park in Madison, Wisconsin. This beautiful park was originally marshland on the outskirts of Madison, when the land was purchased by a local attorney, Daniel Tenney in 1899 for $4,000, in order to build a park, which now includes a beach on Lake Mendota, and a lagoon which is groomed for skating in the winter.

Grooming the lagoon must wait until the ice is thick enough for the Madison Parks’ staff to put heavy equipment on it. During most winters, however, the lagoon freezes without any snow on it and is thick enough for skaters before it is thick enough for heavy equipment.

Such is the case right now, and this weekend, I had the good fortune to enjoy a wonderful skate along with about 100 others.

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Marston Street bridge over the Tenney Park lagoon.

However, skating on thin ice carries its risks. Many years ago, I skated too close to this bridge early in the winter season when no one besides my wife was with me and I broke through the ice. Fortunately, I was able to pull myself out, but I have since learned to wait for others to skate before I do and to avoid skating too close to bridges early in the season as the ice under bridges is not as thick.

Yesterday, I had hoped that my work to remove a dilapidated bridge and boardwalk on Goose Lake, in Adams County, Wisconsin was finally going to come to fruition. As I have written previously, in my role as Chair of the Goose Lake Watershed District, we have contracted to have this work completed this winter. On Monday, our contractor contacted me to let me know that he intended to start work yesterday. However, as I was driving up to meet him, he let me know that the ice was too thin and that his equipment had crashed through the ice, so he would have to wait until the ice was thicker to proceed with the work. Fortunately, he was able to remove his equipment and no one was injured.

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Broken ice near boardwalk on Goose Lake

As I wanted to see what happened, I put on my cross country skis to examine the site as you can see above.

It was a beautiful winter day, so I continued to ski with my dog Luna running along and thought about the lessons learned from skating  on thin ice and how they apply to systems change.

Skating on thin ice and systems change are both risky. They involve pushing the limits of what nature (in the case of ice) or large institutions (e.g., government, corporations) will safely allow. As with any risky ventures, one must exercise sufficient caution to remain safe. However, that does not mean that one cannot take any risks. Rather, one must observe if others have tested the ice or systems first and determine the results. In some cases, one may fall through the ice or get pushed back by the systems. That, however, does not mean giving up. It just means pulling out and waiting until the ice is thick enough or the systems are ready to be changed.

I look forward to many more winters of skating, ice thick enough to complete the demolition and removal of the dilapidated bridge and boardwalk on Goose Lake, and many more ventures changing antiquated systems that are not providing equal rights for all.

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For more information on how Jeff Spitzer-Resnick can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact him by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.

Why Small Local Government Matters

One of the many hats I wear is that of Chairperson of the Goose Lake Watershed District (GLWD).  The GLWD is a small governmental body which has 5 members, 3 of whom are elected by the 157 property owners in the watershed district, 1 is appointed by the Town of Jackson, and one is appointed by Adams County.  We have the power of taxation and those taxes bring in about $18,000/year.  Those funds are used for the care and maintenance of Goose Lake, including combating invasive species, weed control, aeration, and beach maintenance.

The GLWD was formed about 4 years ago when it became clear that neither voluntary efforts nor other, larger governmental units, were maintaining the necessary environmental quality of Goose Lake.  Last summer, after watching the GLWD’s initial success, I decided to put my hat in the ring when a vacancy opened up, and I was unanimously elected Chair at the annual meeting.

The GLWD operates remarkably free of partisan politics, as we all have the same goal in mind, improving the quality of Goose Lake for all to enjoy.  One of our biggest challenges involves how to deal with the privately owned Gilligan’s Island which has a deteriorating boardwalk and bridge leading from the mainland to the island.  It presents unique challenges because there are 17 co-owners of the island and it cannot be sold without all owners agreeing to its sale.

To deal with this challenge, the GLWD sent a survey to the island owners and discovered that they were also frustrated by the island’s deteriorating condition.  After the survey results were in, the GLWD invited the island owners to a meeting to discuss how the GLWD could potentially buy the island and fix or remove the deteriorating boardwalk and bridge.  While this process is far from concluded, these initial cooperative steps show promising signs as we agreed to put together a committee to develop a plan to improve the island.

At its last meeting, after much investigation, the GLWD also signed a contract to buy a used lake weed cutter, which over time will allow us to maintain the lake in better condition for less money.

While the GLWD is strictly non-partisan, it does not mean that it does not express its views to the Wisconsin legislature.  Earlier in the Wisconsin state budget process, we wrote our legislators and sought restoration of state funds for lake conservation staff. Our State Senator, Luther Olsen, sits on the Joint Finance (budget) committee, and agreed with our position, and successfully restored that funding.

At our last meeting, we agreed to write Gov. Scott Walker to request that he veto the policy provision which is in the budget recently passed by the legislature that eliminates the right of citizens and Lake Districts such as GLWD to challenge high capacity well permits.  I just sent that letter to Governor Walker and I hope it influences his decision in favor of vetoing this non-budgetary anti-environmental provision.

The GLWD is an excellent example of how a few dedicated citizens can have an important impact at the local level.  Policymakers would be wise to support the success of local governmental units, rather than limiting their ability to succeed through unnecessary restrictions.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.