Marissa Jablonski doesn’t shy away from the tough stuff. Her career as a water engineer has plunged her into challenging environmental projects that span the globe – from building drinking water infrastructure in Guatemala to helping hotels in Thailand phase out single-use plastics.
Solving the big problems might seem like a purely analytical task, but at the core of everything Jablonski does is communication. Finding common ground among individuals is the first step to helping a community tackle its common problems, she says.
“People are people are people are people, no matter where you are,” Jablonski says. “Most likely you want clean air, clean water, clean soil to grow food, and you care about your family and your community.” This is a philosophy that she shares with her team at the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin. As the organization’s executive director, she oversees the development of cutting-edge research and education programs that center on freshwater ecosystems.
Jablonski, who was born in Milwaukee and grew up in Elm Grove, wants to see her home state become a national leader in freshwater education. Not only does Wisconsin border two Great Lakes, but it’s also home to over 15,000 inland lakes and 12,600 rivers and streams.
Her work at the Freshwater Collaborative merges two lifelong passions – people and the environment. Her ultimate goal is not only to serve students here, but also to draw interest from those out of state who would come to Wisconsin to learn about freshwater ecosystems and apply their knowledge around the country. “The idea that a student could come and study all over the state and get a more rounded education that gives them depth and breadth and understanding, that’s really what we want Wisconsin to be on the map for,” Jablonski says.
So far, the money to make those ambitions come to life is steadily growing. In early 2022, the collaborative received the first installment of a $5 million bipartisan fund from the Wisconsin State Legislature for programs and projects across the state. The money, along with other grants, has been “life-changing,” Jablonski says. Since then, the collaborative has funded 80 projects about water for students and professionals, including courses, research and experiences such as a freshwater sciences summer camp for high schoolers and field work opportunities for undergraduates.
It’s those young people – and the folks who help implement educational programs around the state – to whom Jablonski credits the organization’s success so far. “All of the really interested students who are leaning in and saying, ‘This is a huge problem. I really want to be a part of the solution. Let’s tackle this thing together,’” she says. “It’s really cool.”
Though the collaborative has funded water-related projects across many topics, Jablonski highlights two areas that are of major importance right now:
Agricultural water management
Farming requires a lot of water, yet of course is essential for our survival. Finding sustainable ways to distribute water while preserving ecosystems is a persistent challenge.
Water quality safety and emerging contaminants
It goes without saying that clean drinking water is a necessity for everyone. “Forever chemicals” called PFAS have been increasingly discovered in drinking water sources around Wisconsin, and seasonal blue-green algae blooms can be a toxic threat to the water supply. More research is needed on how these contaminants harm human health and how we can get rid of them.