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Racine-based Foundation Effort to Tackle U.S. Freshwater Challenges Ends

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Over the last six years, The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread invested $7 million in forging partnerships to find freshwater solutions. 

The foundation decided not to continue funding the freshwater initiative.  Friday the program ends.

Over the decades, the foundation has hosted conferences tackling a wide range of issues, including education and emerging contaminants. Then in 2008,  it decided to dig deeper and act proactively on environmental issues. Lynn Broaddus was brought on as director of the environment program.

“The first two gatherings were actually in 2008 and it was with those gatherings that we made the decision to focus on water and then on U.S. water in particular,” Broaddus says.

Because she says, “no one else was doing it,” adding, “when you think about it water sustainability and water services are absolutely fundamental to our security as a country and our well-being, and yet there’s no single federal agency that thinks about it; there’s no single NGO thinking about water holistically for the country – so we decided to take it on.”

Dubbing the initiative Charting New Waters, the foundation threw itself into a series of strategic meetings. It flew in key players across disciplines, housed them and nurtured conversation – often pulling together players with conflicting views.

“That first time that really happened during my time, in 2009 we had a meeting on agriculture and water and we had people in the room – their organizations were in litigation with each other….so the meeting started off and they were pretty prickly but in the end they came to see each others’ perspective,” Broaddus says.

The gatherings generated more than just conversation. Results included ongoing collaborations between unlikely allies and federal legislation.

Jane Elder participated in several of the retreats. “I remember being very intimidated by the invitation and the list of leaders who were going to be there,” she says.

Elder is executive director of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences Arts and Letters. She found Wingspread’s convening model encouraging participants to consider other perspectives to be profoundly effective, and refreshingly unique.

“I’ve had these experiences, and I think most of us have been – where you walk in and everybody is an expert and their job is to be noisy, more active or to claim more of the agenda than anybody else –and those aren’t particularly productive," she says. "So I think that careful selection process, but also they design the meetings so there is time to get to know people as people, there’s time to relax and enjoy and places where you walk and think if you need to get away. It’s a lovely incubator.”

Elder is referring to The Johnson Foundation's setting.  It is housed in Wingspread - a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright - and its pastoral grounds.  The Johnson family, of household products fame, passed the property to the foundation in the 1950s.

Although its freshwater focus is coming to an end, it plans to continue to host conversations on other pressing issues.

Lynn Broaddus hopes the freshwater conversation finds a new home. Earlier this month, 80 participants gathered to discuss what's next.

“One thing was very clear is that want this conversation to be able to continue,” Broaddus says.

It appears less clear who might step up to fill that role.

“I don’t know how that’s going to work it, I think it’s going to take a little while. It’s kind of a big deal,” Broaddus says.

Val Klump hopes to help fill the void. He is senior scientist with UWM’s School of Freshwater Sciences.

“That’s obviously something our new center for water policy can pick up on, and we’ll keep on this issue. It’s not going to go away – it’s important," Klump says. "The thing is resources, that’s what it boils down to. I mean, that’s what Wingspread Foundation has that we don’t have."

Klump says the School of Freshwater Sciences has a wealth of top notch researchers. Yet, he says the school cannot afford to fly in national experts on a regular basis and set them up in a retreat-like setting such as Wingspread.

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