Meet the Man Trying to Preserve North America’s Water Supply

Walker’s Point-based Matt Howard talks the Great Lakes Compact and the Milwaukee Wind Turbine.

Matt Howard first made a name for himself as the city’s green czar, officially the Milwaukee director of sustainability, spearheading a handful of energy programs and the construction of the city’s wind turbine during his tenure from 2010 to 2015. Since then, his working life has grown considerably vaster: Employed by the Water Council since June 2015, Howard is responsible for promoting water conservation across all of North America (using the sustainability standards developed by the Alliance for Water Stewardship). The job involves a lot of travel but not much fly fishing, his pastime, although he does squeeze in the occasional nature hike.

Locally, what are the greatest threats to water quality?
The biggest is polluted stormwater runoff. Most of the pollution in our rivers and Lake Michigan can be traced to polluted stormwater runoff from agricultural [land] upstream, city streets and lawn that have fertilizers and pesticides on them.

What about road salt? Research has found it turns our little streams toxic.
It certainly increases the salinity. Road salt is a major problem, and communities have tried different things, whether it’s sand or beet juice. You’ve got to find a product that’s just as effective, that people are OK with, and which you can get a lot of.

Are we approaching an era when water will become the most precious natural resource?
Certainly, right now, we’re learning a lot more about how fragile groundwater resources are. There are places in the United States and globally that are under real threat. I don’t think it’s too far off to say we might begin seeing a realignment of where we grow certain crops and produce in the United States. I don’t know if we’re going to get to Dune-like proportions, but we can’t ignore this issue anymore. 

The Great Lakes Compact was an attempt to lock down access to communities that are contiguous to the lakes. Is that sustainable, given Waukesha’s recent success in gaining access to Lake Michigan water?
In the medium term, I’m not sure I see any threat to the compact and joint governance between Canada and the United States. It’s international and federal law. What’s beneficial for the Great Lakes is how interested and on top of things local communities and nonprofits and environmental groups are with Great Lakes issues. You’ve got
built-in watchdogs on both sides of the border.

When you built the city of Milwaukee Wind Turbine, were you expecting the public outcry it received?
No. Maybe I was naive. Ultimately [the feedback] was great. It helped us to determine the size and position of the wind turbine, and the community bought into it. I knew things were okay when the Bay View Neighborhood Association produced a T-shirt that had the wind turbine on it.

Where do you go fly fishing?
I don’t know if I can tell you where I go. My favorite region is the Driftless Area in western Wisconsin. It’s got a lot of valleys and hills and trout streams. It can get quiet when you’re out there fishing. ◆

‘Water World’ appears in the January issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Matt has written for Milwaukee Magazine since 2006, when he was a lowly intern. Since then, he’s held the posts of assistant news editor and, most recently, senior editor. He’s lived in South Carolina, Tennessee, Connecticut, Iowa, and Indiana but mostly in Wisconsin. He wants to do more fishing but has a hard time finding worms. For the magazine, Matt has written about city government, schools, religion, coffee roasters and Congress.