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Troubled waters, continued

"Right now [stormwater] goes right into the river, so whatever it's picking up goes in. We're going to measure what difference it makes in reducing the volume of water and improving the quality of water before it gets to the river itself," McAvoy says. The goal is to scale up and adopt additional stormwater management best practices in the neighborhood and adjacent areas.

Rain garden in Milwaukee
In a pilot effort, rain gardens and rain barrels near
the KK River demonstrate stormwater management
best practices that residents can adopt.

Residents have been eager to get involved after learning that the rain barrels and gardens will benefit the river, their neighborhood and their properties, and are encouraging one another to take part.

Environmental apprentice

This community-oriented approach - allowing residents to be part of the planning process and developing a sensitive strategy to meet their needs - is something McAvoy says he learned firsthand while studying at UW-Madison under Nelson Institute (then the Institute for Environmental Studies, or IES) faculty.

After graduating from Michigan State University with a degree in resource development, McAvoy served in the military. While stationed in Fort Belvoir, Va., in April 1970, he remembers the first Earth Day observance in nearby Washington, D.C., organized by U.S. Senator and Nelson Institute namesake Gaylord Nelson.

McAvoy knew he wanted to return to studying natural resources and was drawn to UW-Madison, he says, because the university was "beginning to develop this idea of having an interdisciplinary approach in natural resources, to educate graduate students particularly. There was a whole group of enthusiastic students coming into the program at that time and I was one of the first to get involved." (The fall of 1970 marked the official beginning of the Institute for Environmental Studies).

McAvoy took a number of courses in Water Resources Management (WRM), a graduate degree program that would become affiliated with the institute in 1972. McAvoy also formed his own masters committee of Bill Lord and Ray Penn, then professors of agricultural economics and members of the WRM faculty executive committee, and law professor Carl Runge, who maintained close ties with the Nelson Institute.

"It was great to work with these young folks from all over the country who were pursuing different careers but were doing it under this umbrella of the Institute for Environmental Studies," McAvoy says. "And the faculty, which made the biggest difference I think, were so committed to this - so passionate about trying to get students together to work on real-world problems of the day and using that to really educate students."

"We had very gifted faculty but we were given the opportunity to work with local, state and federal officials," he continues. "We worked on a number of issues that became very important."

Among those was a controversy over federal relicensing of the Chippewa Flowage dam in northwestern Wisconsin to the Northern States Power Company. McAvoy was part of a student-faculty team led by Steve Born, now an emeritus professor of urban and regional planning and environmental studies, that investigated the issue from 1971-72 as part of the annual WRM workshop. Erhard Joeres, who would become interim director of the Nelson Institute in 2002, was also involved as a new faculty member in the department of civil and environmental engineering.

(The WRM workshop continues today, offering students the opportunity to collectively study a contemporary water resources problem of immediate and vital concern to a community.)

Social impacts

In the case of the Chippewa Flowage, the WRM team worked with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to provide scientific and ecological information about the river system, an analysis of policy issues, and a list of possible alternatives (and their consequences) for future use of the flowage. Their final report was presented to then Wisconsin Gov. Patrick Lucey and other stakeholders involved with the relicensing decision.

During its investigation, McAvoy says, the team realized that while there were environmental concerns due to perceived threats to the reservoir's near-wilderness features and recreational opportunities, underlying issues related to Indian welfare would also bear heavily on the relicensing decision.

"The idea that the
[university] is not
limited to the campus
- the Wisconsin Idea -
for me was real, and
it was for a lot of people.

"We were coming up with solutions that were going to address some of the natural resource issues, and I think they would have," McAvoy says. "But what we learned as we started to have more direct involvement with the community was that the underlying issues were really economic ... in particular for the Native Americans, because they had been left out of the equation for a long time."

For example, reservation lands of the Lac Courte Oreilles band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians were included within the flowage area when it was created, over the tribe's objection. Flooding nearly extirpated the wild rice crop traditionally harvested by the band and drastically altered its self-sufficient, subsistence lifestyle.

"There were deep-seated feelings about that," McAvoy says. The WRM team realized that some of the solutions they were coming up with could actually perpetuate or continue those trends. "We started to think about it more in terms of how you manage and use in a sustainable way the natural resource base, but help address some of the fundamental and underlying socio-economic issues. I think for many of us it was a really good learning experience."

Ultimately, as a result of the relicensing procedure and settlement claims, certain lands were transferred to the Lac Courte Oreilles, and the Wisconsin DNR and USDA Forest Service purchased additional shoreline lands from Northern States Power.

"One of the things that was so obvious to me at the time and so appealing about going to Madison was that there really was this tie between the communities, the state and the academic institution," McAvoy says. "The idea that the [university] is not limited to the campus - the Wisconsin Idea - for me was real, and it was for a lot of people.

"It helped me at that point in my career to get more focused and understand where I wanted to really apply myself."

Full circle

So began a long-running relationship with the Nelson Institute. Throughout his career working on environmental and water policy issues, McAvoy has frequently consulted with institute faculty and alumni, including in the development and implementation of the Great Lakes Compact, a historic eight-state water management pact to set responsible standards for water use and conservation within the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River basin.

Chippewa Flowage
McAvoy was part of a Water Resources Management
student-faculty team that investigated the relicensing
of the Chippewa Flowage dam. Photo credit CC/akipta.

After earning a law degree from Marquette University, McAvoy worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, helping to implement and administer the Coastal Zone Management program, a voluntary federal-state partnership that provides for management of the nation's coastal resources, including the Great Lakes, and balances economic development with environmental conservation.

"Wisconsin at the time was just beginning to develop its program and I was one of the federal officials reviewing and ultimately approving [it]," McAvoy says. In 1978, the Wisconsin Coastal Zone Management Program became the first such program established in the Great Lakes.

"It was interesting to reconnect to Wisconsin and Madison, because some of the faculty that I had worked with at what became the Nelson Institute were instrumental in getting this program started,"
McAvoy says.

A few years later, he returned to Madison to work for then Gov. Tony Earl. While assisting the governor in getting landmark legislation passed to address acid rain and the implementation of the Great Lakes Charter - an agreement among the governors and premiers of the Great Lakes states and Canadian provinces regarding the management of the region's water resources - McAvoy worked with a number of university faculty and graduates, including former WRM classmates.

"It was a neat closing of a circle," he says.

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