Ron first learned to appreciate clear cold streams, lakes, and the seascape during a summer long trip as a child to his mother’s homeland in Ireland. He became interested in conservation while living and working on a farm among the valleys and bluff tops along the Mississippi River near Dubuque Iowa. There, he learned how farming in an unforgiving landscape damages our land and our water resources and how both large and small changes in farming practices can have very large and lasting impacts both positive and negative.
A career opportunity became available to Ron’s wife and it was time to leave the farm. The couple moved to Southern Wisconsin. Ron remembered a geology field trip to the Baraboo Hills during his early years in college, and his impressions of the area made the decision to move easy. He returned to school at the University of Wisconsin Madison to pursue a new career in Natural Resources.
Ron got a job with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources after completing his coursework and a year as a crew leader with the Wisconsin Conservation Corps. He remembers the welcoming remarks to new employees from DNR Secretary CD “Buzz” Besadny. Besadny said, “…remember that DNR staff do not prevent pollution, rather they regulate pollution. And it is through their regulatory actions that the agency protects and improves our water quality and aquatic habitat.”
“This is how our DNR is failing Wisconsin now,” said Ron. “The agency isn’t meeting the public’s expectation and support for effective implementation of the Clean Water Act.”
Ron lives in the Town of West Point, near the Mud, Fish and Crystal Lakes. When the lakes with no outlets began rising, the DNR faced the difficult challenge of balancing the needs of lakefront property owners, a lake rehabilitation district that sought to pump water out of the lakes, and local residents who were concerned with the impact of pumping water from already-impaired lakes into the sensitive ecosystem of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway.
“When the Lake Rehabilitation District wanted to lower lake levels by pumping into the Lower Wisconsin Riverway, we expected that the lake water would degrade water quality in the river,” said Ron. “But the DNR didn’t complete a thorough analysis of how the lake water could affect the river water quality, especially during periods when the river’s flow was low.”
The decision was especially disturbing as the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway is classified as an Exceptional Resource Water and one of the most biologically diverse large rivers in the upper mid-west, if not the in the entire nation.
The Clean Water Act requires an anti-degredation review before new sources of pollution like lake water with high levels of nutrients from agricultural runoff and runoff from commercial and residential development enter a waterway.
“We knew the lakes were suffering from several sources of pollution: agricultural runoff, failing septic systems from an old resort, and a wastewater treatment facility that’s been operating out of compliance with water pollution laws for years,” said Ron. “But rather than doing an anti-degredation analysis to study the impacts of pumping into the Wisconsin River and setting science-based limits, the DNR said the levels of the lake were more important than preventing another very real threat to the health of people and the environment of adding phosphorus, nitrogen, and bacteria into the river.”
After Ron retired from working for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, he thought he would be spending more time in a Wisconsin trout stream and less time looking into land and water management. He was wrong.
“Like all DNR retirees, I want to feel like I made a difference during my career there,” said Ron. “With my experience and knowledge, I want to keep active in this work to protect our water. But it takes a tremendous amount of time and commitment just to keep up with the drastic changes at the agency. The problems there are so great that and we have to work very hard, not only to improve our water resources, but simply to try and prevent further degradation. I always planned on staying involved after retirement, but I never planned on working so hard to prevent things from getting worse.”
Ron Grasshoff lives in the Town of West Point in Columbia County and retired from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in 2010 with over twenty years of experience in water quality management and environmental impact analysis. His education includes a degree in education and environmental studies, a post-graduate degree from the Nelson Institute at UW-Madison, and a certification in public administration. He brings his experience and enthusiasm for land and water stewardship to community groups including the Friends of Scenic Lodi Valley and the Friends of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway, and to his involvement in local government serving as the Chair of the Town of West Point’s Open Space Committee and as a member of the Town of West Point’s Plan Commission.
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.