MaryJo Gingras | Ashland, WI
I grew up on a northern lake in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. As a freshman in high school, I studied freshwater ecology. That got me hooked; studying aquatic organisms in streams, learning about stormwater runoff, and how pollution affects water quality and ecology. After high school, I attended Northland College in Ashland, where I earned a degree in Natural Resource Management.
My career began in 2001 with the Iron County Land Conservation Department working on soil erosion control and water quality. I never stepped away from conservation, and 20-something years later I work as the Ashland County Conservationist.
Most of our water management challenges date back to the 1800s when the forests were logged and cleared of Hemlock and White pine. Then in the early 1900s, the land was converted for farming. Hundreds of wetlands were drained to farm, build roads and develop homes. Northern Ashland County is composed of heavy clay soil. Before the removal of trees, their deep roots held the soil in place. Decades of farming has compacted the clay soils and prevents water from infiltrating into the ground. The loss of deep-rooted trees, coupled with compaction, created a fragile landscape that is prone to flash floods. So, we are experiencing drastic impacts from increased rainfall and frequency of large storm events in recent years.
In 2016, and in 2018, we had unprecedented flooding in Ashland County. Between July 11 and July 12 in 2016, the National Weather Service reported a 14-plus-inch rainfall event in Central Ashland County. The night of the flood, my family and I pumped more than 100 gallons of water from our children’s bedrooms in the basement, and a big seven-foot round culvert 50 feet long washed out on my road and was not repaired for five months. That resulted in two deaths and over $35 million in damages to homes, highways, roads, bridges, and businesses.
As a natural resource manager, I need to adapt conservation practices to address the increasing precipitation. We can’t design culverts and streambank stabilization practices by the same standards that we have followed for decades. Our precipitation events are larger and more frequent. My department is now strategically restoring areas on the landscape where water moves off the land quickly. We need to implement natural flood management and wetlands are a great place to begin. They can lessen the impact of flooding by absorbing the precipitation and then allowing for the slow release of water to protect areas from flood damage.
Both observed and projected climate change impacts have been documented across northern Wisconsin. For Ashland County, this includes a 1.5-degree increase in annual temperature over the past century and a 2-degree increase in annual winter temperatures. Compared to the previous century, heavy rainfall events are predicted to double by 2080. I know there’s uncertainty in long-term projections, but our best science and what we are experiencing locally, indicate that we should prepare for increased temperatures and precipitation across all seasons.
How we manage our pristine resources is a question I grapple with in my job. We are stewards and caretakers of our natural resources. As stewards, our role is to take care of them and protect them, while managing them for the future. Even with increased flooding, I remain hopeful. That is who I am. I love the woods and waters. I love living in this amazing place and will work to maintain the quality of the natural resources that many people in this region live for. We have a great team working on these challenges. There are examples of successful natural flood management practices in other regions that we are learning from. We can learn and we can adapt.
Our woods and waters are pristine in northern Wisconsin. In Ashland County, we have several hundred thousand acres of national forest, which is mostly undeveloped. We also have the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, 158 lakes, and two state parks. So many of our natural resources are pristine because they are protected under state or federal public lands and are relatively undeveloped. I love spending time in Copper Falls State Park and the North Country trail. Hiking these trails and exploring the woods brings me back to the days I spent as a child exploring the woods near my home. I still am awed by a plant or flowing water.
At the time of the 2016 flooding, I was directing high school camps, one of which was a backpacking trip on the North Country Trail (NCT) from lake to lake through the heart of the flooded region. The morning after the flood we learned that the NCT was flooded and impassable. Bridges and boardwalks along the trail washed out and much of the trail was underwater. Our campers had already arrived, and their trip had to be re-routed to Minnesota. Many of my favorite sections of trail near Lake Three and Beaver Lake were damaged and sections of the trail through the Chequamegon National Forest were closed for up to two years. The repairs through the national forest, and throughout the county, to infrastructure and natural restoration were extensive. Fortunately, these sections have been repaired and the trail was eventually re-opened.
I used to think natural resource rules or laws will help protect and improve issues. Now I realize that is not the answer. Education is the key and that is where I put a lot of my energy. Some days it is focused on educating policymakers about the challenges that our water resources face. Other days it is working with youth, getting them outdoors and connecting them to the natural environment, or working with teachers to educate them about natural resources in our community.
Much of our conservation management is focused on how we slow the flow of runoff. There are dozens of ways we can manage the water on our property. For example, urban landowners could wash their cars on the lawn instead of on the driveway. This would allow infiltration into the soil rather than soap and sediment moving into storm drains, which quickly take water to the streams and lakes. Another example is that homeowners could install rain gardens, which gather rainwater and slowly infiltrate it into the ground, or they could use rain barrels at the downspout to collect water and use it for watering plants.
I have a rain garden at my house out in the country. Much of the water that drains off my roof leads into my rain garden and it infiltrates into the ground instead of running off down my driveway, carrying sediments and any sort of contaminants that could be in the driveway. In rural areas, we have a tendency to try and move the water away from our homes and the lands we’re using. That’s why drainage tiles and ditching were installed. Instead, we should manage the water onsite and encourage it to be absorbed into the ground rather than allowing the runoff to quickly move into streams and lakes. If you implemented these practices around a lake, stream, or river, and every person upstream did so as well, it would have a cumulative effect of keeping sediments out of the water and improving water quality. It takes everyone. It’s not just having one person trying to make a difference.
There is a quote by Jacques-Yves Cousteau that means a lot to me. He said, ‘People protect what they love, they love what they understand, and they understand what they are taught.’ I see examples of this all the time. Someone backpacking who is passionate about nature, so she guides and teaches women through nature healing trips. Or a Lake Superior fishing guide who is so passionate about the lake and his business is to take people fishing. Or a Woods & Water Program high school student I worked with in 2003 who is now a Lake Superior Water Management Specialist for the State of Wisconsin.
For me, being Ashland County’s Conservationist is about fostering opportunities for more people to become passionate about the outdoors–the waterways, a river, a stream, a trail. Some people will protect our natural resources because they know it’s the right thing to do, and some won’t do the right thing regardless. But in the middle are those who, once they learn about the issues, or they develop a strong connection to a place, will become involved in protecting these resources. And that is where I spend much of my energy and it is what confirms for me that education needs to be a big part of the work I do.
MaryJo’s story was produced by Scott Schultz and is part of our series on Wisconsin’s water future. This series was funded by the ‘Beyond the Headlines’ initiative and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Beyond the Headlines (BTH) is a program of Wisconsin Humanities that brings members of the Wisconsin media and the public together to examine how we can obtain information that we need and trust in order to meet our communities’ challenges. BTH had a statewide Wisconsin Water Future project. You can learn more about it here.