Tag Archives: river

Watershed campaign: Milwaukeeans unite behind water initiative

For some Milwaukeeans, summer begins with a dance in the Summerfest water fountain during PrideFest.

For others, it begins with a starry night paddle on the Milwaukee River or the first beach day.

Water puts the sparkle in Milwaukee’s summers and helps define the city’s identity.

“I live to be on the water,” says Bobby Lagerstrom, an avid kayaker and competitive swimmer. “That’s what brought me here. Milwaukee is a great water town.”

In mid-May, Milwaukee Water Commons, a project of the Milwaukee Environmental Consortium, brought several hundred people together at the Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery for the Confluence Gathering. The event was the culmination of a two-year process involving 1,300 people and more than 30 groups interested in shaping a vision to make Milwaukee a model water city.

“It was a very robust conversation,” said Milwaukee Water Commons executive director Ann Brummitt. “We talked to people about water — what matters, what are the issues, what are the concerns. And then we really asked people about a vision going forward.”

Milwaukee Water Commons’ slogan is “Together, we’re shaping Milwaukee’s water future.” The nonprofit abides by these principles: Water is an essential element for all life on Earth. Water belongs to no one and cannot be owned. People have a responsibility to protect and preserve clean fresh water. Decisions about the care and use of water must involve everyone. And the Great Lakes are a gift, having “nurtured our ancestors and shaped us as a people and as a community. They continue to sustain us.”

The group operates a water school that collaborates with other organizations on specific programs and cultivating neighborhood leadership. MWC also conducts town hall-style meetings and workshops and works with local artists.

The Confluence Gathering provided the opportunity to launch six water initiatives under the “Water City Agenda.” The vision is for Milwaukee to:

• Be a national leader in “blue-green” jobs. Work is underway to promote the blue-green economy in the city, but the scale needs to grow, according to Brummitt, who previously directed the Milwaukee River Greenway Coalition and worked as a school teacher.

• Make safe, clean and affordable tap water available to every Milwaukeean. A chief concern in Milwaukee, as it is nationally, is aging pipes. “While our tap water that comes out of Milwaukee Water Works is very good, by the time it gets to your kitchen faucet there’s a chance of lead,” Brummitt said.

• Advance green infrastructure practices across the city. “There’s a lot of really good energy going into this goal already,” according to Brummitt, who said elements in new developments might include rain gardens and green roofs, bioswales and curb cuts.

• Make Milwaukee’s three rivers and Lake Michigan swimmable and fishable.

• Offer every Milwaukeean meaningful water experiences. Brummitt made this observation: For all the sailing, kayaking, swimming, fishing and strolling that takes place in Milwaukee, there are children in the city who’ve never been to one of the rivers.

• Celebrate local waters in arts and culture.

“There’s a lot of work to be done,” said Brummitt. “As strong as our water culture is, we’re still losing ground. We can’t keep pace with the environmental degradation. So that’s where we felt there was room to bring in more people and more perspective. Everybody has something to say about the future of water in Milwaukee.”

In the coming months, think tanks will be established to tackle each initiative and, Aug. 7, an annual H20 happening — We Are Water — will be held at Bradford Beach on the Lake Michigan shore.

Institutional partners in carrying out the Water City Agenda include the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences and the Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage District.

“The science is there, the tools are available and our water policy researchers are ready to help turn these transformative ideas into reality,” Jenny Kehl, director of the Center for Water Policy at UW-M, said in a news statement.

Nonprofit partners in the campaign include leading environmental groups, as well as community and neighborhood organizations such as Alice’s Garden, a nonprofit in the Johnsons Park neighborhood.

“The work Milwaukee Water Commons has taken on is some of the most important work this city will do,” said Venice Williams, director of Alice’s Garden. “It is about preserving the dignity of the ancestral waters of Lake Michigan. It is also about helping every human being who quenches their thirst, bathes their body, rinses their clothes, mops their floors, enjoys their cup of tea to understand one cannot exist without water.”

A sister project, with a regional focus, is the Great Lakes Commons, and organizers in other Great Lakes cities, specifically Toronto and Cleveland, are at work employing the “commons” concept.

“When we started this work, we started to look and see if there was a model for this kind of thing,” said Brummitt. “But there just isn’t a well established framework for a water city. This is our foray into creating that. It will be developed. That’s coming. We’re shaping the agenda in Milwaukee.”

Become a commoner

For more information or to get involved with Milwaukee Water Commons, visit milwaukeewatercommons.org.

Save the date

On Aug. 7, Milwaukee Water Commons will present We Are Water 2016, a communitywide celebration at the north end of Bradford Beach. The event will feature song and dance, artwork and spoken word, and the creation of a large, illuminated image of the Great Lakes in the sand.

In related news …

Carpenter raises concerns for pipeline spills

Wisconsin Sen. Tim Carpenter, D-Milwaukee, asked U.S. Sens. Tammy Baldwin and Ron Johnson to join with U.S. Sens. Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan to make sure the Department of Transportation classifies underwater pipelines in and around the Great Lakes as “offshore” facilities.

Why? Carpenter said under federal law cleanup for “onshore” facilities is capped at $634 million but “offshore” facilities must have resources to cover all costs.

If there were a spill in the water from the pipeline that’s transporting 23 million gallons of crude oil and liquid gas daily, the cleanup could be $1 billion. The pipeline crosses the Straits of Mackinac, connecting Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.

“Our incentives should be to protect the waters and avoid economic catastrophe of spills,” Carpenter said.


Great Lakes group moves Waukesha water request forward

Representatives of Great Lakes states and provinces have given preliminary approval to a precedent-setting request by Waukesha to draw water from Lake Michigan.

The regional group agreed the water diversion application by Waukesha complies with a Great Lakes protection compact if certain conditions are met, including an average limit of 8.2 million gallons a day — 20 percent less than the original request.

The group includes eight states and two Canadian provinces. Minnesota abstained from voting during a conference call earlier this spring.

Governors of the eight states, or their representatives, will meet in Chicago later this month to consider the conditional approval and vote on Waukesha’s request, which has drawn substantial opposition from environmental groups.




Conservationists aiming to protect river sue to stop homes

Conservation groups are suing to block the development of a massive master-planned community in southern Arizona in the hopes of protecting the last major free-flowing river in the Southwest.

The Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity and five other groups filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against a pair of federal agencies for allowing El Dorado Holdings Inc. to fill in desert washes without adequately studying the development’s effect on the environment.

Their attorney said his clients want to ensure the San Pedro River and the wildlife it supports are protected.

“They can’t just plow ahead and allow this to go through without considering the effect it’s going to have,” said Chris Eaton, attorney for Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm.

The river, which flows north from Mexico through southeastern Arizona until its confluence with the Gila River, supports a cottonwood-willow forest and is an important corridor for migratory birds. It also is home to endangered species including the ocelot, the yellow-billed cuckoo and the northern Mexican garter snake.

El Dorado Holdings Inc. has proposed a 28,000-home master-planned community called the Villages at Vigneto near Benson, with an 18-hole golf course, parks and hiking trails. The development would be about 2 miles from the San Pedro River.

El Dorado Holdings Inc. — founded by Diamondbacks co-owner Mike Ingram — is not a party to the lawsuit and plans to move forward with the development, but it has not yet set a date to break ground, said Mike Reinbold, a partner at the company.

“We are in compliance with all local, state and federal laws,” he said.

The lawsuit says the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Fish and Wildlife Service failed to look at how the community would affect the environment under the Clean Water and Endangered Species acts. Both agencies declined to comment.

The Army Corps of Engineers previously issued a permit in the same spot to a different master-planned community called Whetstone Ranch in 2006. El Dorado bought the land in 2014, and the permit along with it.

Eaton, the Earthjustice lawyer, said the environmental groups have a responsibility to ensure the development does not adversely affect the river’s endangered species, vegetation and watershed.

“We’re going after both agencies, and the duty to consult is put on both agencies. But it’s up to the Army Corps to make the first effort,” he said. “But it’s also up to the Fish and Wildlife Service to make sure the consultation is meaningful.”

Sandy Bahr, director of Arizona’s Sierra Club chapter, said the development could destroy vital habitat for many imperiled species dependent upon the river.

“We’ve dried up a number of other rivers in our state, and the San Pedro is already a threatened river,” Bahr said. “We don’t want the next development. That will be the nail of the coffin in the San Pedro.”

A second lawsuit is underway in Cochise County, along a different section of the San Pedro, over a developer’s access to groundwater rights that could affect the river near the city of Sierra Vista.

Waste from thousands of mines creates toxic stew beneath western U.S.

Beneath the western United States lie thousands of old mining tunnels filled with the same toxic stew that spilled into a Colorado river last week, turning it into a nauseating yellow concoction and stoking alarm about contamination of drinking water.

Though the spill into the Animas River in southern Colorado is unusual for its size, it’s only the latest instance of the region grappling with the legacy of a centuries-old mining boom that helped populate the region but also left buried toxins.

Until the late 1970s there were no regulations on mining in most of the region, meaning anyone could dig a hole where they liked and search for gold, silver, copper or zinc. Abandoned mines fill up with groundwater and snowmelt that becomes tainted with acids and heavy metals from mining veins which can trickle into the region’s waterways. Experts estimate there are 55,000 such abandoned mines from Colorado to Idaho to California, and federal and state authorities have struggled to clean them for decades. The federal government says 40 percent of the headwaters of Western waterways have been contaminated from mine runoff.

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency was trying to staunch leakage from a gold mine – not worked since 1923 – high in the San Juan mountains of southern Colorado. But workers moving debris from the mine tunnel accidentally opened up the passage, leading to a million gallons of sludge spilling into a creek that carried it into the Animas River. From there the discharge headed toward the Colorado River, which provides water to tens of millions of Westerners.

“The whole acid draining issue is something we struggle with in the western United States,” said Bruce Stover, the Colorado Department of Mining official in charge of dealing with abandoned mines in that state.

One of the complicating factors is money and legal liability. Cleaning up the mines is very costly, and the Clean Water Act says that anyone who contributes to pollution of a waterway can be prosecuted for a federal crime, even if they were trying to clean up pollution. That’s kept environmental groups from helping the EPA treat water and tidy up mines. Groups for several years have been pushing for a federal law that would let so-called “Good Samaritan” groups help with cleanup without being exposed to legal liability.

“There’s still a whole generation of abandoned mines that needs to be dealt with,” said Steve Kandell of Trout Unlimited, one of the organizations backing the bill.

But the spill from the Gold King mine shows the amount of damage that the slightest cleanup accident can inflict. The mine is one of four outside the old mining town of Silverton that have leaked heavy metals into Cement Creek, which flows into the Animas. Cement Creek is so poisoned that no fish live there and the EPA has long registered abnormal levels of acidity and heavy metals in the upper Animas that have also injured aquatic life.

Downstream, though, the Animas flows through the scenic town of Durango and is a magnet for summer vacationers, fishermen and rafters. The river turned yellow Thursday, emitting a sickening stench and sending water agencies scrambling to shut off the taps from the waterway.

The EPA apologized profusely to residents for both the accident and failing to warn anyone for the first 24 hours. During a town hall meeting in Durango on Friday, a restaurant owner asked the EPA if it would compensate businesses for lost revenue, while officials warned that the river may turn yellow again in the spring, when snowmelt kicks up the settled contaminated sediment.

The history of the Gold King and its neighboring mines is also an example of the difficulty in cleaning up old waste. The EPA had initially tried to plug a leak in another mine that drained into Cement Creek, the American Tunnel, but that simply pushed more contaminated water out of the neighboring mines such as Gold King.

“In this day and age, everyone wants the quick fix, but these things take time,” said Jason Willis, an environmental engineer who works with Trout Unlimited in Colorado. “These are site-specific tasks.”

Stover said it was particularly galling that the Animas was contaminated by the very chemicals that environmental officials have been trying to remove from its watershed.

“It’s very unfortunate,” Stover said. “We’ve been fighting this war for years, and we’ve lost a battle. But we’re going to win the war.”

Wisconsinites ask court to block rail expansion through marsh pending legal review

La Crosse area citizens suing over a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources permit for a Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway rail line expansion through the La Crosse River Marsh want the court to put the permit on hold while the legal challenge is considered.

“Petitioners took this action today because the court has the power and discretion to put a hold on the permit so that citizens have their day in court before the damage to the marsh is done,” said Sarah Williams, staff attorney for the Midwest Environmental Advocates. “It is particularly important that the court grant citizens’ request for a stay as soon as possible because BNSF is now allowed to continue constructing in the marsh during the endangered black tern nesting period.” 

The challenge is not only on the direct impacts to the 7.2 acres of wetlands that railway company would fill, but also on the indirect and cumulative impacts of the project. The Wisconsin Environmental Policy Act, according to the MEA, requires the DNR to prepare an environmental analysis including indirect and cumulative impacts of the project.

The MEA said the DNR’s failure to disclose and consider numerous and significant environmental impacts that may result from the project demonstrates the permitting program does not provide an environmental analysis equivalent to that required by WEPA.

Numerous residents of La Crosse and the surrounding area raised concerns about the project, including:

• The risk of environmental harm and threat to public safety from a train derailment carrying hazardous materials such as crude oil.

• Disturbance to neighbors of the tracks from increased noise, vibration and air pollution from more and more frequent trains passing through.

• The incremental impact of another wetland fill in the La Crosse River Marsh, which already has been reduced to half its size from previous developments.

• Impacts from construction and operation of the second track on the Mississippi River, which is adjacent to and downstream from the La Crosse River Marsh.

MEA said the DNR failed to consider these impacts in the permitting decision.

Citizens also raised concerns about the impacts of the project on threatened and endangered species in the marsh. Throughout the permitting process, the DNR has received numerous comments from the public about the importance of the marsh for bald eagles, black terns, Northern long-eared bats and other species for which the marsh is a nesting ground, provides habitat or serves as a stop along an international migratory path. 

In spite of significant public concern and involvement regarding impacts to these sensitive species, the DNR issued an amendment to the BNSF permit that allows construction in the marsh during black tern nesting, which was prohibited in the original BNSF permit. The DNR made this change to the BNSF permit without a public notice and comment period.

The DNR subsequently imposed additional conditions on construction during black tern nesting and created a construction avoidance zone. However, the DNR’s process of amending the permit without notice and modifying permit conditions through a separate authorization creates a moving target and does not allow for meaningful public involvement, according to the MEA.

A hearing for the motion to stay the permit is scheduled for June 22.

MOWA captures a state’s love for the polka

Photographs of accordions, tubas and Pabst Blue Ribbon signs may not be the norm for an $11.2 million art museum that features nationally recognized sculptors, painters and other media artists.

They fit right in at the Museum of Wisconsin Art, located along the Milwaukee River and just east of West Bend’s quaint downtown.

Since late January, the museum’s second-floor Hyde Gallery has been home to Polka Heartland: Photographs by Dick Blau.

In 2013 and 2014, Blau, a professor of film at UW-Milwaukee, traversed Wisconsin with Rick March, an author, musician and musicologist from Madison. Blau and March, whose book, Polka Heartland, is scheduled to be released in October, set out to capture the styles of the state’s diverse polka scene.

More importantly for Blau was documenting the feeling and emotion of the official state dance.

“It’s really about the way people make a kind of social happiness with one another,” Blau said by phone from his home in downtown Milwaukee. “It produces a feeling of warmth, euphoria and happiness.”

Wisconsin has its own Polka Hall of Fame with such notables as “Tuba Dan” Jerabek, Vern Meisner, Don Peachey and Louie Bashell. Polka festivals can be found around the state in Ellsworth, Wisconsin Dells and Pulaski. The tiny village of Willard, east of Eau Claire, celebrated its 40th annual event last year while the Wisconsin State Polka Festival at Olympia Resort in Oconomowoc is set for May.

In June, there’s the Roger Bright Polka Festival in New Glarus, Polish Fest in Milwaukee and in Madison, the Essen Haus, a year-round pit stop for polka bands from around the country.

Blau’s exhibit features 27 photos, some more than 3 feet high and nearly 6 feet long, but there is no musical accompaniment. Instead, visitors take in the images in relative quiet, much like they would with other exhibits in the 32,000-square-foot museum.

That’s not to say polka music is absent from the colorful exhibit.

When the photo gallery debuted, more than 650 people filled the museum, many of them dancing to The Squeezettes, a Milwaukee band named polka artist of the year in 2012 and 2013 by the Wisconsin Area Music Industry and featured in Blau’s photos. On March 14, the Brewhaus Polka Kings performed at the museum for what was dubbed “Polka Saturday.”

“It’s going to be a flat-out polka dance,” Graeme Reid, the museum’s director of collections and exhibitions, told the Wisconsin State Journal. “It is very much a part of Wisconsin’s intrinsic culture.”

The Museum of Wisconsin Art was founded in 1961 when it was known as the West Bend Gallery of Fine Art. The museum was established by the Pick family to collect and exhibit the work of a relative, Carl von Marr, who was born in Milwaukee in 1858 but was trained in Munich, Germany.

For much of the museum’s history, it was located in a 20,000-square-foot space in what had been the corporate headquarters for West Bend Insurance. In 2007, the museum changed its name to the Museum of Wisconsin Art and announced plans to build a new facility. Fundraising began in 2008 as the economy began to tank but in 2012, ground was broken on property that had been home to an outlet mall. The museum opened in April 2013 and last year had 35,000 visitors compared to 2,900 the last full year in the previous museum building.

“It’s had phenomenal growth,” says Laurie Winters, MOWA CEO and executive director. “It’s a platform for Wisconsin artists.”

When I visited last week, I not only took in the work of von Marr but of painter John Steuart Curry, who in 1936 was appointed as the first artist in residence at the Agricultural College at UW-Madison. Curry traveled the state where he promoted art and painted rural scenes from the era. There also was work from the Cedarburg Artists Guild and in the atrium, sculptures of canoes by Truman Lowe, a Ho-Chunk from Black River Falls.

Blau’s polka photos are in contrast to the rest of the museum’s artwork but just as vital.

Blau’s and March’s travels took them to Turner Hall in Monroe, Martin’s Tap in New Berlin and Amerahn’s Ballroom in Kewaskum. There were stops at Pulaski Polka Days, the Laak Ballroom in Johnsonville and to the now-defunct Las Vegas Latin Club in Oregon, south of Madison.

That’s where the band, the Mazizo Allstarz, came decked out in sharkskin suits and used electronics and a brass section but had no accordion. A mirrored ball, fog machine, laser lights and well-dressed dancers added to the ambiance of the club, located in a former indoor athletic facility.

Blau’s photos captured it all, even though his shots were taken while seated at a table because he didn’t want to intrude.

“It was quite an exotic experience,” Blau says. “It’s different stylistically and represents something most people haven’t seen. I think people in Wisconsin aren’t really aware of how large and vital the Latino population has become.”

When Blau created his first book on polka, Polka Happiness, he shot in Buffalo, New York, and it primarily consisted of Polish polka bands. It also was 1992 and he was limited to a film camera with flash to make small black-and-white images.

Polka Heartland is shot in color, using natural light and with a digital camera that allowed for much larger images.

“It actually changes the relation of the viewers to the images because it allows them entrance into them, and that’s not possible when you have smaller pictures,” Blau says. “It makes them want to dance.”

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W.Va. official: People are inhaling formaldehyde

A state official said this week that he “can guarantee” some West Virginians are breathing in traces of a carcinogen while showering after the chemical spill, but federal health guidelines say people need to breathe “a lot of it” to be a problem.

The crude MCHM that spilled into the water supply ultimately can break down into formaldehyde, Environmental Quality Board official Scott Simonton told a state legislative panel. He added that the breakdown can happen in the shower and that formaldehyde is most toxic when inhaled.

But University of Washington public health dean Dr. Howard Frumkin, an environmental health specialist, suggested that officials use caution when interpreting the results of the water tests, including asking whether the chemical’s presence existed before the spill.

“There’s lot of possibilities there,” he said, including the chance that formaldehyde showing up in tests isn’t a result of the chemical spill.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the chemical “can make you feel sick if you breathe a lot of it.”

Simonton called respiratory cancer the biggest risk with breathing in the chemical.

“I can guarantee that citizens in this valley are, at least in some instances, breathing formaldehyde,” Simonton said. “They’re taking a hot shower. This stuff is breaking down into formaldehyde in the shower or in the water system, and they’re inhaling it.”

Initial testing at Vandalia Grille in Charleston showed traces of the chemical in the water. Other testing showed no traces of formaldehyde, but samples are still being processed.

“The problem is, we’re seeing it in water. We don’t know what the concentration is in air.” Simonton told reporters Wednesday. “We do know that there is enough mass of that contaminant to exceed EPA safe levels in air.”

The testing is funded by a Charleston law firm, Thompson Barney LLC, which is also representing businesses that lost money because they couldn’t use water for days.

Freedom Industries’ spill in Charleston spurred a water-use ban for 300,000 West Virginians, but officials have lifted it.

State officials believe the leak of crude MCHM and stripped PPH started Jan. 9. Freedom Industries has estimated 10,000 gallons of chemicals leaked from its tank.

“We know that (crude MCHM) turns into other things, and these other things are bad,” Simonton told reporters Wednesday. “And we haven’t been looking for those other things. So we can’t say the water is safe yet. We just absolutely cannot.”

According to the CDC, formaldehyde is a known carcinogen. It is colorless, strong-smelling gas used to make building materials and household products, including walls, cabinets, and furniture.

Breathing formaldehyde in large quantities can cause sore throats, coughing, itchy eyes and nosebleeds. Symptoms also are common with other upper respiratory illnesses, such as colds, the flu and seasonal allergies. People with short-term exposure are less likely to have symptoms.

According to the CDC, the risk of health problems is low when formaldehyde levels are of 10 parts per billion. The risk is “medium” at 100 parts per billion, particularly among the elderly, young children and for those with health conditions such as asthma.

Gay mayoral candidate’s body found by Mississippi levee

Whatever his prospects for winning the coming mayoral election in his hometown of Clarksdale, Miss., Marco McMillian was considered by many to be a man on the rise. So word spread fast when his SUV was involved in a wreck this week, and he was nowhere to be found.

The discovery of the openly gay candidate’s body near a Mississippi River levee Wednesday stunned residents of Clarksdale, a Blues mecca in the flatlands of the Mississippi Delta.

Authorities were investigating McMillian’s death as a homicide, and said a person of interest was in custody, but released few other details.

“There’s a lot of people upset about it,” said Dennis Thomas, 33, who works at Abe’s Barbeque.

“Why would somebody want to do something like that to somebody of that caliber? He was a highly respected person in town,” Thomas said.

The 34-year-old Democrat wasn’t running what many would consider a typical campaign for political office in Mississippi, which is known for its conservative politics.

Campaign spokesman Jarod Keith said McMillian’s campaign was noteworthy because he may have been the first openly gay man to be a viable candidate for public office in the state.

McMillian, who was black, had also forged ties while serving for four years as international executive director of the historically black Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc. Photos on McMillian’s website and Facebook page show him with a younger Barack Obama, former President Bill Clinton and with U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat.

Coahoma County Coroner Scotty Meredith said McMillian’s body was found Wednesday morning near the levee between Sherard and Rena Lara. It was sent to Jackson for an autopsy.

Meredith said the case is being investigated as a homicide, but he declined to speculate on the cause of death.

Authorities had been looking for McMillian since early Feb. 26, when a man crashed the candidate’s SUV into another vehicle on U.S. Highway 49. McMillian was not in the car.

The sheriff’s office said Feb. 28 that a person of interest was in custody, but had not been formally charged.

Will Rooker, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office, declined to release other details.

McMillian was CEO of MWM & Associates, described on its website as a consulting firm for nonprofit organizations. In addition to his role at the fraternity from 2007 to 2011, McMillian had previously worked to raise funds as executive assistant to the president at Alabama A&M University and as assistant to the vice president at Jackson State University, according to his campaign.

A statement from the fraternity said he had secured the first federal contract to raise awareness about the impact of HIV and AIDS on communities of color. It noted that Ebony Magazine had recognized him in 2004 as one of the nation’s “30 up-and-coming African Americans” under age 30.

Supporters say McMillian – a 1997 graduate of Clarksdale High School who graduated magna cum laude from Jackson State and held a master’s degree from St. Mary’s University in Minnesota in philanthropy and development – had big ideas for Clarksdale, a town of about 17,800 people.

The town is well known to Blues fans as the home of the crossroads, where Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the devil for skills with a guitar. Academy Award-winning actor and Mississippi native Morgan Freeman is part owner of the Ground Zero Blues Club in town. Clarksdale is also hounded by the poverty typical of the Mississippi Delta.

McMillian was hoping to win the office being vacated by Mayor Henry Espy Jr., the brother of Mike Espy, a former congressman and U.S. agriculture secretary. Henry Espy decided not to seek re-election after more than two decades in office. Espy’s son, state Rep. Chuck Espy, and Bill Luckett, a partner in Freeman’s club, were among the other well-known candidates in the race. The primary is May 7.

The Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund and Institute tweeted: “Our hearts go out to the family and friends of Marco McMillian, one of the 1st viable openly (hash)LGBT candidates in Mississippi.”

McMillian’s campaign said in a statement that words cannot describe “our grief at the loss of our dear friend.”

“We remember Marco as a bold and passionate public servant, whose faith informed every aspect of his life,” the statement said.