People fish at Reno Bottoms, a wildlife area in the backwaters of the Mississippi River, on July 18, 2023. (Jovanny Hernandez / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
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The big headline from the summer of 2023 not about indictments or blockbuster movies is the weather. It was the hottest July on record. Parts of the country are suffering from weeks of triple-digit temperatures and drought while others are experiencing severe storms and flash flooding.

If Wisconsinites felt a sense of safety from the worst effects of climate change, smoke from Canadian wildfires that made our air quality among the worst in the world for a spell upended that notion. Not surprisingly, this has people wondering what it means for their loved ones, neighbors and the world around them. It’s one of the reasons the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is teaming up with Wisconsin Watch and the Sustainability Institute of La Crosse for an event in La Crosse next month.

Look at a map of the midsection of the country, and the one thing that stands out is the Mississippi River. The vast network of rivers and streams that feed the river drains the waters of 42% of the continental United States. The river carries more shipping traffic than an interstate highway, provides an enormous habitat for fish, waterfowl and other wildlife, and supplies drinking water to more than 50 cities. Food grown in the basin accounts for more than 90 percent of the nation’s agricultural exports.

Yet despite this footprint, there hasn’t been any large-scale news coverage of this area until the launch of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk last year. The desk is a collaboration of the University of Missouri School of JournalismReport for America and the Society of Environmental Journalists. Ten journalists from news organizations across the region are now providing in-depth stories and sharing them widely across media outlets.

“We’re trying to do something that’s kind of unique, which is to take an ecosystem approach to reporting,” explains Sara Shipley Hiles, executive director of the desk and an associate professor at the university. “This kind of takes us outside of our usual, state level orientation or our media market orientation where we’re really thinking just what impacts us locally and helps us kind of fly at a 40,000 foot level and think about well, how are these impacts playing out around me?”

There are two Wisconsin-based reporters that are part of the initiative Madeline Heim, from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Bennet Goldstein, from Wisconsin Watch, a nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative news organization. The pair will be among the panelists at an event open to the public in La Crosse from 7 to 9 p.m., Sept. 21 at the Lunda Center at Western Technical College.

Get free tickets for “Wisconsin Waters: Issues & Actions” here.

Goldstein and Heim will be joined by JC Nelson, acting center director for the U.S. Geological Survey’s Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center, Lee Donahue, a supervisor from the town of Campbell on French Island, where residents have been drinking bottled water since 2021 because of because of PFAS contamination in private wells, and a representative from the La Crosse Urban Stormwater Group.

Casey Meehan, director of Sustainability and Resilience at Western Technical College will moderate the panel discussion and a question-and-answer segment with the audience. Lee Rasch, executive director of LeaderEthics a non-partisan, non-profit organization dedicated to promoting integrity in American democracy, will serve as the emcee.

The Wisconsin-based stories over the last year have touched on many of the same topics making headlines this summer: floodingdrought and wildfire smoke. They’ve also touched on issues that affect water quality, such as PFAS contamination and pollution from nitrates and road salt.

Hiles said as the initiative enters its second year, organizers want to explore more solutions reporting as well as spark additional conversations like next month’s gathering in Wisconsin. There is no shortage of issues to discuss in La Crosse after an unusual summer to say the least.

“Especially when the smoke started and that was such a shocking development for many of us here in the Midwest and then the extreme heat, you know, that was raging across the region, you know, if the very dangerous levels in the South and, you know, high levels in the North and, you know, ridiculous humidity and the the flooding that’s happened and the drought that’s happened,” Hiles said. “We’re bouncing all over the place with this crazy weather and it’s just becomes very clear, you know, you can see what’s happening so much more easily when you understand that these are major patterns, not just regionally, but globally.”

Jim Fitzhenry is the editor of the Ideas Lab at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Reach him at (920) 993-7154 or Follow on Twitter at @JimFitzhenry, Instagram at @jimfitzhenry or LinkedIn

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Jim Fitzhenry is the editor of the Ideas Lab at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Reach him at (920) 993-7154 or Follow on Twitter at @JimFitzhenry, Instagram at @jimfitzhenry or LinkedIn.