How do you get people to understand the need to clean up America's rivers and waterways? One way is to get some of those people onto the rivers in canoes and kayaks where they can see the water first-hand.


Nearly 300 volunteers recently participated in an 11-mile canoe ride down a stretch of the polluted Chicago River as part of the Canoes for a Cause initiative organized by the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co., based in Chippewa Falls, Wis. "All you have to do is get on the water to see how bad it is," says company President Jake Leinenkugel. "People came back after the ride and said, 'Wow, this is bad.' It looked like a dumping ground, which is a shame."



The brewer (which is part of the Miller Brewing Company, a sponsor of MNN) teamed up with the local organization Friends of the Chicago River for this, their third and final Canoes for a Cause event of the summer. "They have the knowledge and the organization," Leinenkugel says. "They're the ones that have gotten us involved. We just want to help them."


The company organized its first "friendly float" last summer, and held three events this year, but Canoes for a Cause is hardly the group's first step toward supporting clean water and promoting water stewardship.


A family history

The Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co. was founded in 1867 on the Big Eddy spring in Chippewa Falls, which at one time was called the purest water in the world. But as the 20th century progressed, the waters around Chippewa Falls didn't stay clean. Thus was born the company's new mission to represent water restoration and preservation.


"We really started more than a decade ago with a local creek that runs through our brewery grounds," Leinenkugel says. "I used to play in that creek as a little kid." The cleanup of Duncan Creek and nearby Lake Wissota involved not just volunteers — who removed debris that had accumulated in the waterways — but also getting other local businesses and government organizations involved.



"I can tell you how we're doing it in Chippewa County" Leinenkugel says. "You've got private businesses like the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company and other companies we've brought on board working proactively with agencies like Chippewa County Land Management. We're also working with various county farmers who are using the land but are right next to ponding areas and runoff areas. We're building barriers and using natural grasses with a 30-yard buffer. We are making a difference."


Today, he says, Duncan Creek is cleaner than it was when he played in it as a child. "That was my first a-ha moment. The water clarity in Duncan Creek is unbelievable. I know it can be done when it's properly managed and the right people are behind it."


A public-private partnership

Leinenkugel says the key to the group's success in Chippewa Falls has been combining efforts from the public and private sectors. "We're getting state funding," he says. "Everyone says that's dried up, but it's not necessarilyl so when they see that there are private companies and private people getting behind it."


He says getting both people and politicians involved directly is essential for water restoration. "You have to have the governments involved because they have some basis of responsibility too. If we can't partner and drive that then we're not going to be able to achieve any objectives in terms of cleaning up what is a very bad situation."


Partnering with local groups like Friends of the Chicago River is also vital to long-term success. "They're the true heroes," Leinenkugel says. "They're the main group that lives there every day. They can tell us what the root causes of the local problems are, the points of interest where effluent material is coming into the rivers. They help make us aware of what's happening to our lakes, rivers and streams."


A model for the future

Another important element is the ability to track and record how efforts are progressing. "You have to have something that you can go back and say this is what we able to do here 10 years ago and this is the difference it's made," he says.


Leinenkugel says the system they have developed for tracking the ongoing Lake Wissota cleanup project could prove to be a model for elsewhere in the country. "We have a scorecard system built out for the next 10 years," he says. "We'll be able to look at this and say, here's what it looked like when we started, this was the water clarity, this is what was in the water, and compare 10 years ago to today."



Swimming forward

Leinenkugel's plans to continue its focus on clean water. "It's something that we found to be very underneath what our company represents, which is water restoration and preservation," says the company president. They are already planning next year's Canoes for a Cause events, as well as other ways to create awareness about water stewardship. "I'm just learning, and we as a company are just learning, but we also know how important this is."


He says he has high hopes for the future, as long as more people — and especially politicians — are willing to get involved. "Once we get the city, county and state people involved, then the momentum will really pick up. Until then, we're just treading water, so to speak."


Canoes for a Cause brings awareness to the troubled state of the Midwest's rivers
The Chicago River "looked like a dumping ground," says Jake Leinenkugel, president of the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co. But he believes that things can change.