By Kimberlee Wright
Living near the Great Lakes, we have a special responsibility to protect the largest volume of fresh water on Earth. Early in Wisconsin’s history, we were faced with the devastating aftermath of the cutover of the great northern-forested lands. Rivers were choked with mud from massive erosion resulting from landscape-scale clear cutting.
People from all walks of life came together to restore our waters and developed science-based management strategies that served as models around the world.
Today our waters are again seriously threatened, this time by different threats: the increase in severe weather events resulting from climate change that are aggravating already severe groundwater pollution and the weakening of our state’s commitment to protect our water because of pressure from special interests. The combination of these threats is frightening and calls for strong citizen action.
For decades, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources was a national leader in science-based management of water. When the federal Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, staff from the DNR helped write the implementing regulations for the act.
Sadly, we are no longer a leader. While there are still talented men and women in our DNR, many have become discouraged and departed. Those who remain are hampered by budget cuts and the agency’s unwillingness to aggressively enforce existing law. Communities such as Kewaunee County that are at serious risk from water pollution have had little help from the DNR.
While we fight for proper enforcement of laws designed to protect public health and the environment, the challenges of climate change are growing. Those of us who garden, hunt, fish or bird watch know extreme weather events are increasing. The groundwater pollution from the huge amounts of manure generated by large industrial farm operations in areas with shallow soils like Door and Kewaunee Counties can only grow dramatically worse with the massive runoff events caused by severe storms.
In 1927, Aldo Leopold convinced the Wisconsin legislature to protect what is now the DNR from special interests by having the head of the agency hired and fired by a citizen board. The system served Wisconsin well for 70 years and no doubt was a primary driver of the former excellence of the agency. Leopold cautioned that we needed “science not politics” to manage our natural heritage. He was right. Since 1995, we have had a DNR run by political appointees beholden to the special interest supporters of the party in power. We desperately need to return to a DNR run by a non-partisan secretary experienced in, and committed to, environmental protection, and overseen by an independent, citizen board that requires science-based decisionmaking.
With the resources of the DNR dramatically diminished, the costs and burdens of protecting our public waters have shifted to citizens, usually those in harm’s way. While this is clearly unfair, fortunately the Clean Water Act includes extensive rights for citizens to act when government will not.
This fall, Midwest Environmental Advocates (MEA) filed a petition for corrective action with the EPA on behalf of 16 citizens from around Wisconsin. The petitioners have worked for years to resolve serious water pollution issues in their communities with little help from their government. They are asking the EPA to require Wisconsin to follow the federal Clean Water Act or to rescind our state’s legal authority to issue permits. The petition follows years of expensive litigation to secure water pollution permits that follow the objective, technical standards in the law.
Clean water is essential to everyone. Its protection is the poster child for a bipartisan issue. Since filing the petition, people from around the state have contacted MEA to ask how they can help. A large group of retired DNR employees have stepped forward to urge the EPA to take the failures outlined in the petition seriously. They, more than anyone, understand the consequences of regulatory failure.
Together we must make it clear to officials at every level of government that our water is increasingly at risk and that we expect them to solve this problem. Our history has proven over and over that people standing together are more powerful than any special interest.
We have a clean water crisis in Wisconsin that can only become worse with the severe weather anticipated from climate change, but I am confident grandparents, parents, sisters and brothers will not stop fighting until the rights of future generations to abundant, clean water are secured.
Kimberlee Wright is the executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates (MEA), a nonprofit environmental law center working for healthy water, air, land and government for this generation and the next. Before joining MEA, Wright managed the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship program for land trusts working in partnership with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to protect critical habitat and natural areas. Earlier in her career, she served as director of conservation programs for The Nature Conservancy in Wisconsin.
The Climate Corner is a monthly column featuring a variety of writers from around the state and Door County addressing various aspects of the challenges and opportunities climate change presents. The Corner is sponsored by the Climate Change Coalition of Door County, which is dedicated to “helping to keep our planet a cool place to live.” The Coalition is always open to new members and ideas. Contact the Coalition at: [email protected].