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Citizen Voices Matter: In the Bad River Watershed

Teaching kids how to canoe and develop earth-based skills – from basket weaving to stargazing – means more than fun, summertime activities to April Stone Dahl. Sharing these skills with those who participate in the annual Lake Superior Traditional Ways Gathering passes down a respect for nature and a love for Lake Superior to the next generation.

April serves on the board of the Lake Superior Traditional Ways Gathering, an event held on the shores of the Great Lake every third week in August for the past 12 years. The lake is what makes the location of the gathering special and is a big part of what draws instructors from across the country to teach traditional skills on its shores.

In 2002, April joined the Bad River Watershed Association as a direct way of being involved with understanding the health of the waters around her home in Northern Wisconsin. That concern grew while she volunteered for the group to take water samples and send quality data to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. In 2014, the watershed’s water quality problems reached a tipping point.

“That was the first year when a sign was posted near our site that alerted us that bacteria levels were being monitored and whether it was safe to swim,” said April. “This year, it was unsafe for us to swim for three days out of our week-long event. Some other beaches and landings along the Lake were closed. After the danger passed and we could go back into the water, everyone was so happy. But we don’t know what we would do if it wasn’t safe to be in the lake. People come from across the country just to be in this special place.”

April contacted the Tribal Natural Resources department to ask where they thought the bacterial contamination was coming from. She learned that while the agency couldn’t identify the source of the contamination, it was most likely runoff from upstream waters that flow into the lake.

“The water in the Bad River watershed means everything to our community,” said April. “We have fish hatcheries and wild rice beds that feed us. Many families rely on subsistence farming and groundwater wells. The water is so important to our everyday lives.”

Agricultural runoff is a contributing problem to declining water quality across the watershed. But the region was also the proposed site of an open-pit iron mine. The iron mining company has since withdrawn its application with the DNR, but the controversial project was the source of statewide debate for several years while people like April who live close to Lake Superior tried to appeal to the DNR about why clean water was a crucial economic and cultural resource to protect.

“It feels like the DNR doesn’t care about stopping the runoff problems or things that we know are impacting our water,” said April. “The DNR has to take those of us who live downstream into consideration when they permit what happens upstream.”

When April volunteers to take water samples each month, she brings her children along so they can learn why testing for nitrates, bacteria, chlorides and turbidity is important.

“In my community, we’re taught that water is a precious gift,” said April. “We have to take care of it because we are all the protectors of the water. If the DNR doesn’t have the resources or the staff to care for the water – even to do the testing needed to establish baselines of water quality and monitor for changes – we need the EPA to step in. I’m not a scientist. I’m not a lawyer. I just know it’s important to protect the water. Clean water is a human right.”

April told her story about why she signed the Petition for Corrective Action in the Spring 2016 edition of the Bad River Watershed Association newsletter (PDF, pages 4 & 5).

April Stone Dahl was raised in northern Wisconsin near the shores of Lake Superior. She is the mother of four, homeschooled children and is a renowned black ash basket maker. April and her husband Jarrod are co-owners of their handcraft business, WOODSPIRIT. She enjoys spending time with her children, living in the Northwoods, and playing and swimming on the edge of the great lake. 

She signed the Petition for Corrective Action to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to encourage the State of Wisconsin and its Department of Natural Resources to fully comply with the Clean Water Act.