Thursday, April 29, 2010

Wisconsin Water Administrator Ambs Resigns At Crucial Juncture

Todd Ambs, the Administrator of the state Department of Natural Resources' Water Division, has left his position after more than seven years to lead River Network, a national conservation group.

I certainly wish Todd well. (I will post the text of Todd's email announcement at the end of this item.)

Regrettably, he has been replaced by Bruce Baker, a long-time DNR staffer, whose last bit of high-profile publicity came when Indiana had agreed to let British Petroleum dump ammonia into Lake Michigan at its Whiting refinery.

BP and Indiana quickly changed their minds, as here was an uproar across the Great Lakes - - except in Wisconsin - - with Baker saying it was no big deal.

Wisconsin's Attorney General a few years ago also reminded the DNR (see her opinion, and citations, here) that it could not unilaterally approve diversions of Great Lakes water, as Baker had suggested.

The AG opinion was an important document and study of Wisconsin water law and history, but received no mention in the traditional media, as I recall. I blogged about it several times. One example, here.

We'll be interested to see what happens with Waukesha's diversion application as it is about to land on Baker's desk.

From Ambs by email last week:

Dear DNR Colleagues:

It is with a great mix of emotions that I am announcing today that I will be resigning as Water Division Administrator to accept a position as President of River Network, a national river conservation organization. I can’t begin to express how much I have valued every moment of my seven and a half years here in the DNR. I leave awed by the great work done across this department for all of our natural resources. We are truly blessed with great talent throughout this agency.

I want to start by thanking Governor Doyle, Scott Hassett and Matt Frank for giving me this tremendous opportunity to serve the citizens of Wisconsin. I have tried my best to do all that I can to meet the responsibilities of this job to the best of my ability.

I have been witness to tremendous accomplishments for the waters of Wisconsin during my time here. These successes all came during a decade of difficult economic circumstances both for the state and the DNR as an agency. A few achievements really stand out:

Passage of Act 310 in 2004, the Groundwater Quantity Legislation. This legislation was an important first step in our efforts to address significant groundwater drawdown challenges in some parts of the state. While just a first step, the law set the stage for an adaptive management approach that will hopefully produce more protections of these precious resources in the next few years.

We updated or enacted a number of new rules critical to our waters. The rules include chapter 30 permits, shoreland zoning, large animal feeding operations, commercial fishing, groundwater quality, thermal rules, and dam safety, to name several of the most significant.

We are well on our way to cleaning up the PCB’s on the Fox River – the largest such cleanup ever undertaken in our country.

We celebrated the more than two decades of success restoring habitat to the Mississippi River with the Environmental Management Program and saw the authorization of a much more comprehensive federal effort through the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program.

We added 44 river segments to the state’s list of Outstanding and Exceptional Resource Waters, came out smelling like a rose following a Legislative Audit of our wetlands program and updated another rose, the Wild Rose Fish Hatchery to a 21st century state-of-the-art facility.

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative was approved at the federal level and nearly $500 million in new money began flowing into the Great Lakes Region to protect and restore these magnificent bodies of water.

Perhaps most notably, we passed the Great Lakes Compact. This achievement may be the only item on this list that people will still talk about 50 years from now. The Compact is a world class covenant between the states, provinces and our federal government to manage the Water Belt of North America – our Great Lakes -- in a sustainable manner. It is a proud achievement for all of us.

I leave as we are in the midst of perhaps the greatest challenge – an effort to comprehensively tackle our number one water quality problem – polluted runoff from a variety of urban and rural sources.

And we achieved all of this working from a foundation built from four main objectives. We said that we wanted to:

  • Protect drinking water and groundwater resources for both human and ecosystem health;
  • Enhance and restore outstanding fisheries in Wisconsin’s waters;
  • Fully implement the Clean Water Act in order to achieve the goal of fishable and swimmable waters throughout Wisconsin, and;
  • Protect the waters of Wisconsin that are held in trust for all people of the state through the Public Trust Doctrine.

We struggled with tight resources and lean budgets to develop priorities, establish measurable outcomes and then tracked our work. We developed a statewide water monitoring strategy because you can’t know where you are going if you don’t know where you are and then did out best to integrate all of our work as well as the work of many of our volunteer partners into that strategy.

It wasn’t easy, we didn’t always succeed but we had more than our share of success while I was here and it was entirely due to all of you.

There is no way to say this that doesn’t come across sounding like a cliché but it is so true – the thing that I will miss the most and that is without question the greatest attribute of the WDNR is the people who work here. I can’t speak for any other agency out there but you embody the best of what a public servant is supposed to be. The taxpayers, license and permit holders of Wisconsin get their monies worth out of you.

I will forever be damn proud to say that I worked for the Wisconsin DNR.

My last full day here will be May 14 although I will be around from time to time through the end of June. Bruce Baker will be taking over as Water Division Administrator and I am sure that he will do a tremendous job.

Thanks again for all that you have shared with me over the years. I have learned much and was given so much more than I could ever give back during my time here.

I look forward to staying in touch with many of you in the months and years ahead as I turn my focus toward working to protect and restore the flowing waters of our nation. While River Network is based in Portland, Oregon, my home base will remain here in Wisconsin so I know that I will still see many of you regularly in the future.

All the best, Todd

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