Group’s clear focus: tackle water quality issues

The village of Mount Pleasant, some 30 miles south of Milwaukee and near Lake Michigan, combines small-town charm with easy access to big city amenities — a winning combination that helped increase its population by 10% from 2000 to 2010.

Today, with 26,000 residents, Mount Pleasant is one of Wisconsin’s fastest growing municipalities. It also is one of more than 20 communities that have benefited from the work of the Root-Pike Watershed Initiative Network (Root-Pike WIN), a nonprofit organization in Racine, just east of Mount Pleasant on the shore of Lake Michigan.

As new houses and businesses are built to meet the increased needs of a growing population, local and state environmental organizations are working to ensure that development is sustainable throughout southeastern Wisconsin. There is a coordinated effort to find a balance between growing the economy without negatively affecting the water quality in the rivers, streams and wetlands that ultimately flow into Lake Michigan, says Susan Greenfield, Root-Pike WIN’s executive director.

“Geographically, we’re a small watershed, but we’re right up against Lake Michigan, which is one of our country’s largest freshwater resources and we’re dealing with water pollution issues here,” she said.

The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation was an early supporter of Root-Pike WIN through a 2001 grant to the Racine Community Foundation, which was a participant in the Great Lakes Community Foundation Collaborative. The collaborative was designed to increase the number of community foundations located along the Great Lakes shoreline that made grants to restore and protect the Great Lakes ecosystem; it opened the door for many participating community foundations, including the one in Racine, to start funding local environment projects and organizations.

A group of children sit in a circle outdoors around a tub of water using magnifiers to look at water samples.
Root-Pike Win, a Wisconsin environmental organization, funds programs that encourage children to study water quality issues in their communities. Photo courtesy of Root-Pike WIN

Since its creation in 1998, Root-Pike WIN has focused on protecting and restoring the watershed’s ecosystem, including providing long-term funding to help restore five miles of the northern branch of the Pike River in Mount Pleasant. Root-Pike WIN provides grants, typically ranging from $1,000 to $10,000, for restoration projects, educational programs, research and planning.

More than 1 million people live or work in the watershed that is home to five major lakes, 450 miles of streams and rivers and 8,500 acres of wetlands — all within portions of Kenosha, Milwaukee, Racine and Waukesha counties. Here, 80% of the drinking water comes from Lake Michigan, while the remainder is from groundwater. Protecting both sources from contamination is critical, Greenfield says.

Like elsewhere around the world, storm water runoff is a major concern. It occurs when water from rain or snowmelt flows over solid surfaces such as parking lots, streets and roofs, and is unable to soak into the ground. Instead, the water carries pollutants from these surfaces, such as oil, pesticides and road salt, into nearby bodies of water.

Root-Pike WIN provides residents from high-density neighborhoods to sprawling farms with workshops on ways to protect their water supply, such as using rain barrels and avoiding lawn and field chemicals. Among other programs, the network provides grants for schoolchildren to test the water quality of samples they have scooped from local rivers and streams.

Since its inception, the small organization with two paid staff has made more than 100 grants totaling $500,000. It also has brought thousands of residents together to address common concerns, including seeking community input recently to update the Root-Pike WIN watershed plan, its first revision in 30 years. Such plans are used by decision makers when implementing projects to meet water quality standards that affect people, animals and plants within specific waterway systems.

“It’s not only government, but people taking responsibility to help shape what they want their communities to be,” said Greenfield, who previously was elected chair of the board for the town of Caledonia in the mid-2000s.

“We’ve seen a lot of improvements in the past 20 to 30 years by stopping raw sewage from flowing directly into our water, but we’ve got a long way to go in addressing storm water runoff.”