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Citizen Voices Matter: In Rhinelander, Wisconsin

When Department of Natural Resources retiree Bob Martini looks at the Wisconsin River near Menard Island in Oneida County, he sees more than flowing water, rushing rapids or wild shorelines. He sees a 40-year-long conservation story he took a lead role in writing, and in which scores of professionals from a dozen scientific disciplines made the river's cleanup possible and efficient.

“The Wisconsin River is called the hardest working river in America,” Bob explains. “It flows 430 miles from Michigan to the Mississippi River and along those miles are paper mills and cities’ wastewater treatment plants, farms and hydroelectric dams that generate power. It’s the largest river in our state, but in the past our hardest working river has been overworked.”

He describes what Wisconsin’s rivers, lakes and streams were like before the passage of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972. The view from the shore was of a river covered in sludge. He describes foam from paper mill discharge that could build up to eight feet high.

“You could put a canoe in the water, paddle right up to and into the foam and then totally disappear,” said Bob. “People today don’t believe how bad it was before the Clean Water Act. History remembers Ohio’s Cuyahoga River catching on fire due to all the pollution. But this river was just as bad. You couldn’t fish here, the fish had tumors. It smelled so bad, the parents of children in Rhinelander and area cities like Wausau wouldn’t let their children play in or even touch the water. It was literally dangerous to touch the water.”

Before working for the DNR, he used his biology studies and industrial microbiology experience to work in a lab in Milwaukee. But the call of the woods and the water were strong. His father was a DNR Warden who inspired Bob to commit to public service and education. Bob moved to Rhinelander in 1975 work for the DNR, where getting out of the lab and into nature felt as much like a vacation as serious work.

Bob remembers that the Clean Water Act was signed by President Nixon after the public pushed for help for rivers like the Wisconsin and the Cuyahoga. The federal law was a blueprint for states to make their own plans to clean up water resources and prevent water quality from backsliding into poor conditions again. Applying this blueprint in Wisconsin required science, leadership and lots of public input.

“When I led the Clean Water Act implementation task force in 1976, we had help in three ways. We had elected officials from the state and local levels, we had technical expertise from scientists and lawyers, and we had input from the public including citizens and industry,” said Bob. “The public had to be as important to the plan as elected leaders, scientists and industry because they are the ones who really own the water.”

The task force developed an innovative plan that used data to assess how much pollution could go into a river without eroding water quality standards. This gave industry and cities a level playing field rather than focusing on pursuing polluters after damage had been done. The plan also forced industry to adapt, evolve and develop technology to stay competitive while following the resource protection laws.

“At first, the paper mills said these laws would put them out of business, that they would move to another state,” Bob remembers. “At one of our first meetings for Clean Water Act planning, a local mill owner and community leader, George Mead, came with a beaker of water and said ‘this is the final effluent of my paper mill’ and drank it, as if pollution problems in the river weren’t a collective and cumulative problem.

“But six months later, he became the biggest champion of cleaning up the river. He did the math and found that if he put his engineers on reducing pollution so much that he never had to shut down production, he’d make more money. I heard later that when his granddaughter visited his home on the Wisconsin River and said ‘Grandpa, I don’t like coming here because the water smells bad,’ she gave him some perspective too.”

Paper mills were and remain important to Wisconsin’s economy. And while the industry resisted the changes, technological improvements to managing waste not only made the industry more efficient, now paper mills make money off of the byproducts of production – everything from yeast in candy bars to additives in vanilla. Bob says when science leads regulations, everyone can benefit from both economic progress and natural resource protection.

Midwest Environmental Advocates sent a Petition for Corrective Action to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2015 on behalf of 16 citizens to ask for greater oversight on the ways Wisconsin is out of step with the Clean Water Act. Bob responded by writing a letter to the EPA in support for the effort. Dozens of retired DNR staff signed on.

“When I first started to work on cleaning up this river, people didn’t think it could be done,” Bob says. “But the public pushed hard for the DNR to put science first. And we did it! We cleaned up the river and it became an economic driver for our state. But if science continues to be a third consideration after politics and money, our work to make all of this progress will go backwards and the public will be cheated out of its most valuable resource. Citizens made legislators pass the Clean Water Act. We need citizens to lead again and get the DNR to put science first.”