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Citizen Voices Matter: In Algoma, Wisconsin

Bill Iwen grew up in Kewaunee County. After graduation from high school, he moved away and served in the United States Air Force. After serving his country, he attended colleges in pursuit of a professional degree. When Bill completed his education, he returned to Kewaunee County in 1976. After a 30-year career as a dentist, Bill retired and became active in a wide range of environmental activities in Kewaunee County.

When Bill describes growing up in Wisconsin, his stories are usually about enjoying the outdoors. After working hard on his parents’ dairy farm, swimming in the Kewaunee River was a treat on summer days. Bill enjoyed his leisure time fishing with friends and family for a wide variety of game fish in the cold, clear streams and rivers in Kewaunee County.

"Since we moved back, we have witnessed a steady decline in the water,” said Bill. “The health of most rivers and lakes can go up and down, but here we can see trails of manure runoff from farmland after it rains. We see cloudy and silt-laden water, and few to no fish in what used to be trout streams. If I were a kid today, I couldn't play in the water. In fact, I will not allow my grandchildren to do so under any conditions now that I am a grandparent and understand health risks from what is in the water.”

Bill understands the risks in Kewaunee’s streams now more than ever. He has been a part of a group of trained citizens who have been doing water testing in the Kewaunee, Ahnapee and East Twin rivers for over three years. A state-licensed laboratory verifies the water tests and provides key indicators of water quality problems such as bacteria and nitrates.

The land in Kewaunee County is unique because the landscape and soil is a kind of Karst bedrock geology. The Karst bedrock is like Swiss cheese, with a porous makeup that is prone to cracks, crevices and sinkholes. While the land can be good for farming, excessive manure spread on Karst countryside is more likely to run off of farmland, run into creeks and streams, and ultimately enter the groundwater aquifer through the porous Karst bedrock that then becomes part of the well water used by rural families.

In an area where cows outnumber people, cow manure must be managed carefully. The state government can regulate manure spreading through nutrient management plans and water pollution permits for the state’s largest, industrialized livestock facilities. However, while nutrient management plans are created so that manure used for fertilizer maximizes the growth of crops, the plans can fail to take into consideration how excessive quantities of waste becomes a dangerous pollutant. These plans aren’t written or enforced in a way that considers the area’s unique bedrock or puts the health of people and the environment first.

Bill has invested a lot of his own time and effort to try to improve the local water quality. He has called the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to report major farm field runoff events and shared photos to help document the problems. He has worked to improve the local government’s power to protect water from agricultural pollution. He was a founding member of Tri Lakes Association, a group of concerned citizens who worked for over 14 years to promote the health of three inland lakes adversely impacted from agricultural runoff. 

Bill more recently worked with community members to establish Kewaunee CARES to organize local residents to work with the DNR and get better responses and action from the agency. Since the explosive permitting and growth of local Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, the DNR has become less responsive to citizens like Bill who believe that for all appearances and actions, the DNR favors the large and powerful CAFO industry without regard to citizens’ pleas for clean, safe water and protection from excess liquid manure being applied throughout the county.

“It’s one thing for us to encourage individuals to test their well water for nitrates or bacteria,” said Bill. “But when our DNR continues to rubber stamp water pollution permits for new and expanding factory farms – without any meaningful consideration for the impact of excessive manure waste on our land and in our water – we need the EPA to step in and help get our state back on track with the Clean Water Act.”


William Iwen graduated high school in 1957, joined the USAF for four years, left Kewaunee County to attend UW-Madison 1961-1965. He then earned his DDS degree from Marquette University, 1970-1974. Returned to Kewaunee Co. in 1976 and worked as a dentist. Bill recognized a change in Kewaunee County farming practices and its environment in mid-1990’s, then increasing in water problems in 2004 and became very active in addressing increasing water pollution due to CAFOs' surge in growth.

He signed the Petition for Corrective Action to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to encourage the State of Wisconsin and its Department of Natural Resources to fully comply with the Clean Water Act.