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Citizen Voices Matter: In Barneveld, Wisconsin

Dave Marshall learned about hydrology and aquatic ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. But where he really learned to love water was in Michigan.

“My grandparents lived on a lake in Gaylord and my parents had a cottage in southern Michigan,” said Dave. “I grew up fishing and frogging and playing in the water. I think I always wanted to do something that involved conservation.”

Dave ended up having a long career in water resources management at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources tracking the water quality of major rivers all over the state. Before the Clean Water Act passed in the 70s, he said few people used the rivers in Wisconsin that were highly polluted.

“I can only describe them as open sewers,” said Dave. “From the bacterial slime growths to the blankets of floating foam, few people used the Wisconsin River, the Pestigo, the Oconto, the Lower Fox River, the Flambeau, the Chippewa River, and, too numerous to count, the many small streams across Wisconsin including Bad Fish Creek near Madison. It was horrendous. But the Clean Water Act changed all of that. By the early 80s, I saw such a transformation. And that’s when the popularity of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway really took off. People went back to the water.”

But later in his career, he witnessed a gradual unraveling of environmental protections under the Clean Water Act. Many newer water quality problems were linked to large factory farms. When Dave focused new research on the Lower Wisconsin Riverway in the early 90s, it wasn’t in search of problems. Until around 2006, the river was still relatively pristine and he was excited to track the rare, aquatic species in what he and others thought was a well-protected, biologically diverse ecosystem full of sandy channels, oxbow lakes and winding sloughs.

But the new pollution problems detected along the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway and elsewhere in Wisconsin reflected a number of political changes including the loss of an independent DNR Secretary, the public intervenors office, or meaningful checks and balances of public participation in pollution permitting in the state.

“We got pollution coming out of pipes under control,” said Dave, “but it was when large-scale agriculture became a huge industry, we could see all of the progress reversing. The farms got bigger, the conservation reserve program participation went down, and the sandy soil of the original river channel basically has become a livestock manure disposal site.”

Unsatisfied with the way things were going at the DNR, Dave left to become a consultant where he could advocate for rivers, have more independence and freedom, and work without the political pressures that plagued the agency.

Dave jokes about being semi-retired. He’s working harder than ever to restore 90 acres of prairie where he lives in Barneveld, Wisconsin. At home, land management and trout stream conservation go together, and he was pleased to donate land to permanent conservation easements for grassland protections. But despite all of the personal time and resources Dave donates to conservation, he believes that these efforts can only do so much.

“I’ve met so many people who want to do something real,” said Dave. “But the DNR has degraded so much. We really need an agency that’s willing to take the Clean Water Act seriously and move forward. Citizens can’t make more progress on our own.”

 

David Marshall is an environmental consultant in Barneveld, Wisconsin who retired from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ Fisheries and Habitat Protection Program in 2006. An avid angler and former SCUBA diver, Dave is concerned about documented water quality degradation across Wisconsin which undermines the public trust responsibilities of the DNR and decades of progress our state achieved under the Clean Water Act.

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.