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Starkweather Creek along Clyde Gallagher Drive

The Midwest Environmental Justice Organization wants to talk to neighbors about their ideas for improving the water quality of Madison's Starkweather Creek. Thus far, their survey has found a wide range of knowledge: some residents regularly fish from it, others don’t even know where it is.

But there’s at least one common theme: neighbors want to know more about the creek's history.

They can do just that at a presentation on Wednesday, July 25, at the East Madison Community Center, 8 Straubel Court, at 6:30 p.m. There will be presentations on the Ho-Chunk history in the area, the current challenges facing the creek and a discussion about what can be done to clean it up. There will be kids activities and a free multicultural meal.

Starkweather Creek has two main branches on the east side of Madison, and runs to Lake Monona as a tributary. According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the river contains lead, zinc and other contaminants and the water quality is "very poor." 

“Urbanization and low awareness filled and drained the wetlands, straightened and polluted the channels and replaced native species of plants and wildlife,” the Friends of Starkweather Creek website says. The group was formed in 2003 to “revitalize this severely abused watershed.”

MEJO has a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for a “Starkweather Creek Environmental Justice Project.” The project aims to teach, survey and engage neighbors and anglers, and hopes to make recommendations for improving the creek and preventing stormwater pollution at a public meeting in the fall.

The project team has also gotten its hands dirty, helping clean out a large city storm drain that connects to the creek. The drain was “dammed up with trash,” and kids from the East Madison Community Center and Gambian Youths of Wisconsin helped de-muck the drain over Earth Day weekend. Their haul included 10 bags of trash and a tire.

The MEJO project is focusing on the nearby Truax and Darbo Worthington neighborhoods. The Truax area especially is incredibly diverse, said Maria Powell, president of MEJO, which means there are people “from all over the world” working to better the creek.

That diversity of backgrounds will help to “collectively bring our knowledge and ideas together to figure out how we’re going to clean up the environment … (and) have clean food for future generations,” she said.

To understand the problems of the creek today, you have to look at changes made to the creek throughout history, Powell said. Typically, that means going back to settlers in the 1800s, who “drained the marshes, channelized the creek and filled in the wetlands,” she said.

“Well, what about before that? Before that was Ho-Chunk people lived here for thousands of years. Wouldn’t it be great to talk about that history first?” Powell said.

That history is the focus of Wednesday’s event, she said. Members of the Ho-Chunk tribe will present on their tribe’s history in the DeJope (Four Lakes) region.

Missy Tracy, municipal relations coordinator at Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison, is always happy to give educational presentations on Ho-Chunk history.

The Ho-Chunk has financially supported the community and nonprofit organizations for a long time, she said, but her position was created almost 4 years ago to bring awareness about the Ho-Chunk people, “talk about who we are,” and “dispel myths.” They’re more than just “a casino on the outskirts of the city,” she said.

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“One of the main points we bring up is that Madison counts its history as 200 years ago and John Nolen and Frank Lloyd Wright,” Tracy said. “So when we sit down with people, we say, ‘Well, you know we have a 12,000 year history here.’”

The night will include a meal with Ho-Chunk corn and squash soup, wild rice from Northern Wisconsin and Gambian and Southeast Asian dishes. Food is a “core component” of the event, Powell said, because, “really, our environment is our food.”

Many privileged people view the lakes as a chance to boat, ski or swim, which are fun and important activities, Powell said. But some low-income individuals and people of color view bodies of water as a source of food, she said. One man who grew up in the Truax apartments has been fishing in the local lakes his whole life, she said, and will be bringing fish to the event.

On Wednesday, Kyla Beard, cage manager at Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison, will also present on food sovereignty, the concept that indigenous communities have a right to access indigenous food and a have a say in how those foods are grown, she said. She’s done research about the history of the food available in the area, pre- and post-colonialism, and how changes to the food system had a “massive impact on our health.”

Beard’s excited to learn about the food traditions of the attendees and “hopefully get some people interested and excited for going out and foraging, for restoring these lands.”

The city is currently gathering input for it’s Milwaukee Street Special Area Plan, which includes a branch of the creek and recommends land uses for future development. Over 100 acres in planning area are slated to “remain as open space,” preserving the wetlands and floodplains in the area, a city staff report said. There’s a public input meeting the same night as the Starkweather Creek presentation, Wednesday, July 25 at 6:30 p.m., at the Goodman Community Center, 149 Waubesa St.

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