© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
A Special WUWM News SeriesThe Milwaukee River allowed commerce and industry to thrive during the city's formative years and provided recreation. However, disregard for the river's health led to decades of decay.WUWM News explores recent developments to rejuvenate the Milwaukee River and their success at drawing people back to the city's historic arterial.

Citizens Claim Wisconsin Not Complying With Clean Water Act, Demand EPA Action

Milwaukee Riverkeeper
Citizen scientists monitor Milwaukee River Basin once a month. Here they are in the Milwaukee River near Newburg.

The Wisconsin DNR is being accused of failing to comply with the Clean Water Act. Sixteen citizens are claiming that Wisconsin has had “long-standing water problems from poor implementation and enforcement” of the Act.

Tuesday, Midwest Environmental Advocates filed a request with the EPA demanding an investigation.

The DNR released a statement to WUWM saying:

The DNR takes its responsibility to protect Wisconsin waters seriously and does enforce the Clean Water Act. The DNR has not had time to thoroughly review the petition submitted by the Midwest Environmental Advocates group and cannot comment directly on the group’s allegations.

Credit Stacy Harbaugh / Midwest Environmental Advocates
Midwest Environmental Advocates
Tuesday, staff attorney Tressie Kamp announced Midwest Environmental Advocates had filed a Petition for Corrective Action with the EPA.

One petitioner is Dave Marshall, an aquatic biologist who worked for the DNR from 1976 until 2006.

"I had witnessed firsthand how the major rivers across the state were highly degraded and then they were rejuvenated by the mid-1980s. Since then, since I’ve retired, I’ve seen there’s been an unraveling of the protections for many of those water bodies," he says.

In addition to this week’s Petition for Corrective Action, local water experts say the Clean Water Act itself has holes.

Though the state has made significant progress in improving water quality since the Clean Water Act took effect in 1972, Wisconsin’s waters are far from pristine.

The Clean Water Act clamped down on point sources of pollution – the chemicals and waste that used to spew out of sewage treatment and industrial pipes. But MMSD’s Dave Fowler says what the act has not tackled is the non-point sources of pollution that pour into waterways - for instance, run-off from storms.

"The goals of the Clean Water Act were that every waterway in this country should be clean, fishable, swimmable, drinkable by 1987. We're now in 2015 and the vast majority of the waterways in our nation don't meet those goals." - Cheryl Nenn, Milwaukee Riverkeeper

“Take a look at the end of the winter, you can see the black crude that appears on the top of that snow; or think about how many pounds of pesticides, and herbicides and fertilizer they put on their lawn,” he says. “A lot of that is not ending of in the lawn, it’s ending up in the street and ends up in the river.”

Milwaukee Riverkeeper Cheryl Nenn picks up evidence of polluted runoff in the Milwaukee River Basin - its three watersheds empty into Lake Michigan.

“We have data for 100 different sites that’s we’re monitoring with our citizens that go out and test monthly,” she says. Her group’s findings remain consistently troubling.

"One of the biggest frustrations of my job is people calling constantly who want to do the swim down the Milwaukee River, or want to know if it’s safe if their dog is in the river, or their kids are swimming in the river. I would love to be able to tell people, yeah, have a great time, go out there and swim in the rivers,” Nenn says. “We have a lot of work to do to get to that point.”

Credit Milwaukee Riverkeeper
Riverkeeper volunteer monitoring team at work on Dretzka Park Creek; it drains into the Menomonee River.

Arthur Harrington cut his environmental law teeth in 1974 when he represented a Wisconsin paper mill. It was grappling with the first permit it needed under the Clean Water Act for discharging wastewater.

“A recent report the DNR put out shows substantial improvement on those conventional pollutants; probably 70 or 80 percent of the waterways are meeting those limits. But we have a new issue and that’s phosphorus,” Harrington says.

Phosphorus contributes to algae blooms and fish kills. It’s found in products such as fertilizer and spills into waterways from non-point sources. "(These sources) are not regulated and that’s primarily the ag industry and that’s creating a lot of tension," he says.

Harrington believes the Clean Water Act could tackle unwieldy, non-point source pollutants, if it follow its original model. The 1972 law allocated $18 billion in grants.

"There is no funding mechanism right now and I think that creates extraordinary challenges and we’re in an environment right now where federal and state officials don’t want to put any money out for these grants, so I think it’s sort of a perfect storm," Harrington says.

He wonders if only a crisis will rouse what might now be a complacent populace.

"The disaster that got people’s attention under the Clean Water Act was the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland which caught on fire. So sometimes you need a disaster to create the public’s attention to have the political will for the government to do something," Harrington says.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
Related Content