Local Journalist James Mills Shares His Perspective on Water in Dane County

James Mills arrived at the Dane County Land and Water Resources Department office with a jump in his step. He was wearing a bright colored button-down and a small shell around his neck, both which complimented his cheerful, easy-going demeanor.

Mills is a freelance journalist and media producer based in Madison. He writes about environmental conservation and diversity in public land management. He recently published The Adventure Gap, a book that chronicles the first all African-American ascent of Denali. He also founded the Joy Trip Project, which is a news-gathering and reporting organization that focuses on outdoor recreation and environmental conservation. The Joy Trip Project publishes online content and a podcast on sustainable living.

Mary Kolar, District 1 Supervisor and member of the Dane County Lakes and Watershed Commission, and I recently sat down with James Mills earlier this summer to discuss local water issues. Mills spoke articulately and passionately about his work, the environment, and his perspective on water.

Tell us a little about yourself outside of work.

James Mills: It's really interesting because the line between work and play is a rather fuzzy one for me because frankly I do what I am. I write about outdoor recreation, but I'm also an avid participant in outdoor recreation. It's summer so I do a lot of biking now. I spend a lot of time on the lakes and rivers in Dane County and parts of Wisconsin. Backpacking is something that I have a great interest in, and cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter time. When the occasion presents itself, I also do mountaineering, ocean kayaking, and anything else I can think of.

Also, my wife is a master gardener and we cook a lot at home. We have two sustainable gardens, and we do a lot of entertaining. I think it’s great to meld your passions and interests in the outdoors with how you live your life: eating good food, spending time with friends, and having little adventures. Fortunately, it is good fodder for storytelling, writing, and just being able to spend time talking about things that are important that I'd like to encourage everyone to embrace.

What is the importance of water to you?

JM: Not to be trite but water is life. Without water, we wouldn't be able to exist on this planet. It's also, I think, a great connecting mechanism because water is the one common element that combines the three areas that I'm focusing on which are forests, farms, and food. Water as it pertains to the natural world is tragically often taken for granted.

One of the things that I’d really like to see more of is an emphasis on is accessibility to fresh water. You take a look at what happened in Flint, Michigan, and you have a natural disaster caused by human beings. Those are the things that have the ability to happen every day if we take our eyes off the ball. The government in Flint wanted to save money, and they thought it would be cheap and easy to cut back their expenditure when it came to the infrastructure of water. And frankly, this wouldn’t have happened in a community that wasn't so disproportionately African American and Hispanic.

When we take a look at a situation like that, we run the risk of allowing that to happen anywhere in North America and definitely all over the world. So I think that we should start looking at water as not necessarily a natural resource but as a human right; looking at the availability and accessibility of drinking water as something not to be trifled with or bartered for, but as something that is part of our natural, cultural, and social heritage that needs to be protected.

What do you feel needs to be done to solve the issues of water pollution and unsafe drinking water?

JM: It should be a very simple solution. When you allow it be a cultural and social priority, you set up circumstances and systems where water is protected. At least in Wisconsin and in North America, the best places to start are our farm fields because most of the pollution comes from aggregate runoff of petrochemicals. We need to change our farming methods by using cover crops to control weeds and maintaining a water table where the water falls as opposed to allowing it to percolate off those farm fields and into streams and rivers. This then prevents horrible blooms of algae and phosphorus contamination, which not only makes the water undrinkable but also runs the risk of contaminating water for the transmission of waterborne disease.

I think that if we can incentivize our farmers to do a better job of maintaining the quality of water, it’s going to be a lot cleaner when it gets downstream. Now, in order to do that, one of the things we might have to do is perhaps accept the fact that we’ve got to charge more for food because cheap food is one of our biggest problems. I think we’ve got an opportunity to shift our priority of our use of modern agriculture to hopefully talk instead about being able to preserve our natural resources -- mainly water.

You mentioned that you were working on a project called “Forest, Farm, Food.” Could you talk a little more about that?

JM: It’s brand new, in fact I haven’t even written it down yet. This is the first time I’ve actually even mentioned it out-loud. Frankly, I want to begin a conversation about the cycle of commerce, energy, thought, and our lives on this planet. One of the things that we look at is seeing where we fit in the farm, forest, food cycle because that is how I want to see the whole world working, so that we protect the natural environment and we have an ecosystem that is manageable for the production of produce which would ultimately make it possible for us to have the energy, health benefits, and livelihood to enjoy the natural environments and start the cycle all over again. Actually, the ‘fourth F’ is “fun”; to be able to enjoy the entire cycle.

People aren’t terribly interested in getting bogged down in ideas that are so big-picture that they can’t wrap their heads around them. My goal of “Forests, Farms, Food” is to be able to make the issue smaller to be able to make the linkages so that people can say, “oh, I get it now. That’s why I need to ride my bike. That’s why I need to drive less,” and build community around it, so that it’s a shared experience.

What is your opinion on the recently-proposed bill that would place the financial burden of subsidizing the replacement of lead pipes for low-income homeowners on utility companies instead of on municipalities?

JM: I haven’t heard much about this specific bill, but based on what you’re telling me, I think that the burden should be distributed as evenly as possible. The utility companies don’t exist without the infrastructure of pipes and sewers that deliver the water to our homes. The city, however, has a responsibility to make sure that infrastructure is in place. So, if the burden is put on the utility companies, they’re just going to pass them on to the ratepayers. So not unlike our healthcare system, it’s going to be paid for one way or the other. What I don’t want to see is both ends of the argument being so uncommunicative where we find ourselves buying bottled water being shipped from out of state.

We need to set the costs that utility companies and municipalities complain about against what it will cost the rest of us should they do nothing. They need to justify to us why the benefits they experience today are more important that the exponential costs we will face in the future. To go back to the broader point of this conversation, I think that journalists are obligated to tell that story.

What do you think needs to be done to mitigate and solve these environmental and social issues?

JM: I think that the best thing to do is believe that everyone matters. You know, sadly, we’ve created this system where some people’s lives are based on the disparities that exist in our culture so that we literally can’t afford to care. I think we can shift our priorities so that we might make a little less in our lives so that other people can have more and encourage the people in our community to do the best that they possibly can with the resources they have to work with. I think the best place to start is with basic, minimal primary education for every young person in our communities and making sure that they have access to affordable health care and safe drinking water. If we make those our priorities and build our culture around that, I think everything will take care of itself. When we shift to including the importance of not just making as much money as we can and hoarding as many resources as we can, we can also hopefully make it so that everyone around us has what they need as well.

What do you feel you personal motivation is for protecting the environment and water issues?

JM: I like to eat. I like to have fun. I like to be happy. I’m actually having a hard time coming to grips with the profoundly selfish motivations that I have for all of these things. I’m done with the notion of “because it’s the right thing to do.” It’s because it makes my life better. I’ll be totally candid with how selfish I am -- with the notion that I am solely motivated by my own self interests. But I’m also prepared to make sacrifices for the self interests of other people. Because as other people live better lives, it allows me to live a better life, too. So, I want to encourage everyone to be selfish and to look after their own best interests as they pertain to the interests of other people.