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Citizen Voices Matter: In Milwaukee, Wisconsin

When Cheryl Nenn gives a tour of the Milwaukee River, her stories are as much about people as they are about water quality or ecology.

“Our volunteers test the water, pull out garbage, and plant trees and native plants along the rivers to better protect them from pollution,” said Cheryl. “They give so much of their time to clean up our water and to make it healthier for our community.”

As the Riverkeeper for the Milwaukee Riverkeeper, Cheryl’s job is to identify and monitor sources of pollution, respond to citizen concerns, and to work with government and other partners to find solutions to problems affecting local waterways such as stormwater runoff, erosion, illicit discharges of pollution and flooding. She knows that the waters of Lake Michigan and the Milwaukee River enhance the economy and sustain the lives of people living in her community.

However, when conflicts arise between the needs of citizens and the interests of urban developers, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources needs to be a referee to bring balance and fairness to everyone who wants access to Milwaukee’s waterways. That hasn’t always been the case.

“I’ve had a lot of experience in negotiating with federal, state and local governments, wastewater treatment plants and private companies. I have often been able to be a citizen at the decision-making table representing our rivers,” said Cheryl. “But this is not always the case. A few years ago, a developer tore down dozens of old-growth trees and disturbed a lot of sensitive land along the river to better advertise that the property had a ‘river view.’ Besides the loss of valuable trees and runoff of dirt into the river – which was bad enough – the work was done without a permit and affected a historic fishing access point. The interests of the public were disregarded.”

Cheryl was a part of a legal challenge that reached a draft settlement, which included a plan to restore the site, allow an easement for public access along the river, and reduce polluted runoff from the site into the river.

However, during settlement negotiations, the DNR intervened and gave the developer an “after-the-fact” permit which insulated the developer from litigation and undermined the settlement efforts that would have improved the land and protected the river for the public good.

“Increasingly, it seems that the DNR only enforces laws when it benefits developers and industry, and yet when citizens want our waters protected, we often have to fight the DNR—both to enforce clean water laws and to get a seat at the table. Under our Public Trust Doctrine, the DNR is entrusted to protect our waters that are owned in common by all Wisconsin citizens,” said Cheryl. “It shouldn’t take a lawsuit to make our DNR protect the rivers and lakes we all share.”

Cheryl's story was also featured in the Milwaukee Riverkeeper's Winter 2016 newsletter (URL, pages 1 and 3).

Cheryl Nenn has been the Riverkeeper for Milwaukee Riverkeeper for over 13 years. Cheryl identifies sources of pollution, responds to citizen concerns, and works collaboratively to find solutions to problems affecting Milwaukee’s rivers. In her spare time, Cheryl enjoys kayaking, sailing, hiking, cross-country skiing and enjoying the wonders of Wisconsin.

She 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.