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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Retired Wisconsin DNR official on the importance of science-based, forward-thinking water policy

pfas hearing marinette 20.jpeg
Susan Bence
Todd Ambs recently retired from Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources.

Wisconsin could be getting closer in efforts to curb the environmental and health impacts of PFAS, known as forever chemicals. Wednesday, the Natural Resources Board will consider what could be Wisconsin’s first regulations at its February meeting. One of the people who’s been immersed in the proposed policy is Todd Ambs.

Ambs recently stepped down as deputy director of the Department of Natural Resources, but his water policy career stretches across decades. He led environmental policy efforts for national conversation groups and headed the Wisconsin DNR’s water division from 2003 to 2010.

Ambs embraces the label of policy nerd, even in his retirement. "Some arcane report comes out on the process for administering state revolving loan funds and I’m reading it now for fun," he says with a laugh.

The Wisconsin DNR began holding public listening sessions regarding PFAS contamination in the Marinette and Peshtigo area starting in 2019. This week the Natural Resources Board is slated to vote on proposed standards for a handful of the forever chemicals in ground, surface and drinking water.
Susan Bence
The Wisconsin DNR began holding public listening sessions regarding PFAS contamination in the Marinette and Peshtigo area starting in 2019. This week the Natural Resources Board is slated to vote on proposed standards for a handful of the forever chemicals in ground, surface and drinking water.

But water policy, in particular, was central to Ambs’ career. He served as lead negotiator for the state during the development of the Great Lakes Compact. That, he says, was a demonstration of bipartisanship. "It had little or nothing to do with partisan politics. It was all about the politics of geography."

Together, the governors of Great Lakes states and premiers of Canadian provinces agreed to policies to protect the lakes. Congress also had to sign off on the deal. "It took four years of intense negotiation, over 100 in-person meetings, hundreds of conference calls, like 92 drafts of the compact," he explains.

Ambs says the effort centered on crafting an agreement with a long view to conserve and protect the Great Lakes basin. "To address challenges that we're going to have now, 10 years from now, 20 years from now. If this was just about a policy for diversions out of the basin, the compact would not be anywhere near as meaningful, I mean, this is an actual sustainable water management system."

Ambs says that throughout his career he tried to employ that approach of working through differences with an eye on future generations.
As for his recent term as deputy secretary of the DNR, Ambs says the public might have perceived little change during his tenure. But he says internally, the agency was evolving. "We came in and we said, 'Look we're going to rely on the professionals in this agency, we're going to follow the science and follow the law and do the right thing.'"

An extended conversation with Todd Ambs

To Ambs, that means relying on science when dealing with land use, wildlife or water issues. "It was striking, particularly in the first year, the number of times I'd be in a meeting and we'd be talking about some issue and it would be like, 'What do you want us to do?' and my response was always, 'You're the experts, you tell me, what do you recommend that we do.'"

Ambs says that he observed DNR staff carefully consider the science that has culminated in the proposed PFAS standards over the last nearly three years. They would regulate a handful of the human-made, forever chemicals in ground, surface and drinking water. The chemicals have been used in a multitude of products from firefighting foam to food packaging.

READ: As PFAS cases persist, Wisconsin takes baby steps toward regulating the forever chemicals

The Natural Resources Board will consider the standards Wednesday. But does Ambs think the board will approve them?

"I must say, I was much more hopeful even a couple of years ago. I really was hopeful that the combination of the governor's focus on safe drinking water and the legislative task force on safe drinking water; you know 14 hearings around the state and every single one of those hearings people standing up and saying, 'We have a problem with our water quality that needs to be addressed now,' and lots of suggestions on what could be done," he says.

Ambs describes his career as stewarding natural resources policy through government bureaucracies.

"They are intrinsically linked and to suggest there is not a political consideration is silly because it's the way it is. But the political overtone should be more of what I would call a public policy overtone, it shouldn't be just this knee-jerk decision. Well, we're going to do this because the Republicans or Democrats want it, or the liberals or conservatives want it. There's always going to be a need to consider how the public is going to react to the science-based choice," Ambs says.

He hopes that is what happens as the Natural Resources Board considers PFAS standards this week.

Ambs says every bit of sound policy Wisconsin has in place will become increasingly critical to the state and the region. "The overlay on all of that is climate change and how we can become more climate-resilient as a state and indeed as a region is going to be an increasingly challenging issue."

He circles back to lessons learned from the Great Lakes Compact and says it created a framework for sustainable water management by anticipating future problems. Ambs says it’s much easier to prevent problems than to fix them.

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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