The Value of Clean Water: A Superior Perspective

What’s water worth? It’s a frequent topic of conversation in my professional circles and perhaps yours as well.  The people of Bayfield, WI probably aren’t used to thinking about this question in quite the same way that it gets asked at Wingspread, but I think they have a fundamental understanding that clean water drives their economy. My husband Marc and I have been up here for a long weekend to celebrate our anniversary, having dropped off our second (and last) child at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, thus placing us officially into the ‘empty nester’ demographic, and giving us an excuse for a little getaway.

Bayfield sits along Lake Superior in Wisconsin’s northwestern corner, about 6 ½ hours from our home in Wauwatosa, and is the launching point for exploring the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. The economy of this picture-perfect region is integrally tied to its natural resources. Even those who never get out of their car would be hard pressed to ignore the importance of water here: marinas, kayak outfitters, sailboat charters, lodging, lakefront property sales, etc. The smoked fish shop’s marketing material has charts comparing the levels of PCBs, mercury, and other such nasties in Lake Superior fish with fish taken from other regions, clearly letting the consumer know that their product is ‘superior’ because of the clean water the fish came from.

Kayaking, though not for everyone, is one of the reasons that Marc and I were here. We’d been wanting to see the region’s sea caves about a dozen miles west of Bayfield ever since our initial trip last year was cut short by a family emergency, and finally our chance had arrived. Sunday morning we drove out to Meyers Beach, a staffed parking area, and made it past the National Park Service rangers whose job seems to be to try to scare people away. On this particular day, scare tactics hardly seemed necessary: the winds were calm, the sky was blue, and the waters were cold but crystal clear.

The outing was all we hoped for. Having been to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, about 250 miles east, I was expecting the beauty and the serenity.  The ‘caves’ are carved out of a red sandstone, and can be seen on many of the islands, but our morning’s destination was the rocky shoreline of the mainland which has a mile or so of these caves. Just being on the lake was enough to make the trip worthwhile, but the beauty of the carved rocks, and the bass-heavy symphony that the waves played as they trapped and released air from the smaller openings was what attract visitors from far and wide.  The wildlife ranging from the large green dragonfly we saw resting in the shade of a cave, to the lone Bald Eagle soaring overhead, and the Common Loons rafting up to prepare for their winter migration were bonuses. We didn’t see any fish, which is itself kind of interesting, but that will have to wait for another blog.

So would this have been as memorable a trip if the water didn’t have 60-feet of visibility? If Cladophora caked the shoreline, would I have driven 300 miles for the experience? Would we be pumping hundreds of dollars a day into the local economy?  Would we be planning our next trip? Would we be telling our friends and family to come up here and enjoy the same? The answer to all of those questions is the same – No. But is it clear that superior water brings value to this community’s economy? Absolutely.

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