The Superior Rivers Watershed Association is a 501(c) (3) nonprofit based in northwestern Wisconsin. It has a staff of four part-time employees and is guided by a seven-person Board of Directors made up of local business professionals. Operational and project funding is secured through memberships, donations, and grants from the US- Fish and Wildlife Service, USDA-Forest Service, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Duluth Superior Area Community Fund, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and others.
The Association’s service area encompasses 1,600 square miles of watersheds located on Lake Superior’s south shore in northwestern Wisconsin. This is a sparsely populated, scenic forested area that includes the reservation of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, home to the Kakagon Slough ecosystem, a UN-Ramsar Convention-recognized World Heritage Site. Located at the mouth of the Bad River on Lake Superior, it is the largest and possibly most pristine freshwater estuary remaining on Lake Superior. This and adjacent watersheds host some of the most significant remaining populations of lake sturgeon, brook trout, coaster brook trout, and numerous other fish species considered threatened or of special management concern by the US-Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies.
These watersheds also include extensive forest, beach, and wetland habitats that support timber wolves, wood turtles, pine martens, piping plovers, and numerous other threatened or endangered terrestrial species. To help ensure a healthy ecological future for this extraordinary part of the world, the then-named Bad River Watershed Association was organized in 2002 by a group of concerned citizens, local nonprofit organizations, Northland College (Ashland, WI) environmental faculty, and Bad River Native community natural resource staff. Eighteen years later, our organization remains committed to our mission:
To promote the healthy connection between the people and natural communities of the Bad River watershed by involving all citizens in assessing, maintaining and improving watershed integrity for future generations.
Review of Ongoing Initiatives
Working with local stakeholders for over 18 years, SRWA has manifested this philosophy “on the ground” through fish passage barrier removal, stream bank restoration, and engagement of the community in water quality monitoring and educational programs. SRWA implements three programs that focus on building local understanding and fostering citizen involvement in the stewardship of regional watersheds:
Our Volunteer Water Quality Monitoring Program involves local citizens in collecting baseline water chemistry and macroinvertebrate data on a regular basis from streams throughout our service area. These data have been used by the neighboring Bad River Chippewa Tribe to establish its water quality standards baseline, and by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to designate regional stream segments as Exceptional or Outstanding Resource Waters. These streams, which are critical habitat for native brook trout, coaster brook trout, and numerous other species, are the centerpiece of the area’s important sport fishery and recreation economy.
Our Fish Passage Barrier Removal Program, initiated in 2003, partners SRWA with local government in securing funding for design and construction of fish-friendly road/stream crossings that eliminate aquatic organism passage barriers and reduce sources of damaging sedimentation. Climate change modeling has predicted significant warming of lower reaches of many southern Lake Superior basin tributaries over the next 50 years, resulting in localized elimination of cold water species. This emerging crisis lends urgency to timely restoration of connectivity in cold water habitat of brook trout and many other cold water-dependent species. To date, our restoration activities have reconnected over 40 miles of stream segments in five watersheds. The south shore region has long been predisposed to severe flooding due to loss of historic forest cover, steep stream gradients, and extensive surficial clay deposits. Climate change has exacerbated this situation in recent years as heavy precipitation events become increasingly common. Catastrophic floods have impacted the region in 2012, 2016, and 2018. Predictive climate models indicate that frequency of localized severe precipitation events is likely to further increase. This reality has shaped SRWA’s restoration projects, necessitating designs that stress flood resilience as well as consideration of the general ecological and hydrological elements of stream ecosystems.
Our Watershed Action Program, initiated in 2009, engages local citizens in walking stream channels to assess present conditions and potential problems. Volunteers gather data on riparian areas, pollution inputs, and in-stream habitat. Data are used to identify priorities for river protection and restoration opportunities. In 2011, this program culminated in creation and implementation of an EPA-approved nine-element watershed management plan which facilitates collaborative action with townships, counties and other stakeholder agencies in restoring degraded stream habitat, eliminating pollution inputs, and engaging the public in stewardship. From 2014 through 2018, SRWA partnered with an inter-agency collaboration known as the Lake Superior Landscape Restoration Partnership. SRWA provided field data and expertise that facilitated formulation of management prioritizing strategies for brook trout stream restoration and reduction of stream bank erosion and channel sedimentation.