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Citizen Voices Matter: In Spring Green, Wisconsin

“The best thing about summer on this river,” said Timm Zumm, “is how you can paddle down and camp on a sandbar. You don’t even need a tent. The visitors from the city paddle way down to camp, but we know where to go where there’s solitude. You can’t hear traffic and you can’t see any houses or buildings. Just trees, bluffs and water. It’s a peaceful place to recharge.”

Timm knows where to camp on the Lower Wisconsin Riverway. He knows where to paddle, where the low spots are and where the sloughs lead. He’s been working to protect and restore the river for over 25 years. But now, as the President of the Friends of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway, he shares concerns with fellow FLOW members that the health of the river is slipping.

The 92-mile stretch of unbroken river is special because of protections put in place over decades of debate, involvement by people like Timm, and legislative action. The river once was a place where wastewater discharges were common. But after the passage of the Clean Water Act, the Lower Wisconsin – like many other important rivers in the United States – was restored to a pristine state and earned an exceptional resource waterway designation.

In 1989, the Lower Wisconsin Riverway Board was established through an agreement with the state government so the citizen board could work in cooperation with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in issuing water pollution permits. This veto power has kept polluted water from coming out of discharge pipes into the river and protected its scenic views, aquatic diversity and recreation. But in the past decade, Timm has seen the impacts of a different source of pollution: increased runoff from area farm fields that creates algal blooms that swell in wetlands and sloughs.

“I moved here to be near the river,” said Timm. “But more recently, I’ve had to change where we go to paddle or swim, especially when the water is stagnant. Parts of the river are getting more green every year and you don’t even want to touch it. We can see that it’s getting worse. And as the trustee and manager of our lands and waters, the state government has the power to do more to take care of this resource.”

Timm is a tireless advocate for the river’s health. He works with local and state elected officials to help them understand the river’s value. He spends time and money to train and lead citizen efforts to monitor the quality of drinking water wells and to measure the nitrates, phosphorus and other pollutants in the Lower Wisconsin Riverway. But without more effective action from the DNR to monitor and address the impacts of pollutants like phosphorus that are degrading the quality of the river, Timm believes that citizen efforts are dwarfed by regulatory failures.

“It seems like it’s easier for the DNR to ask for forgiveness for its lack of staff and resources than permission to do what’s right for the health of people and our water,” said Timm. “But where is the forgiveness when the DNR is knowingly violating the Clean Water Act? Or after the water becomes too polluted to use? We’ve put in too much work to protect this river to go back to how it was before the Clean Water Act was passed. But in order to help the DNR, we need the EPA to help us.”


Timm Zumm is a resident of Spring Green, Wisconsin and serves as the President of the Friends of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway. He works to protect the river from degradation by pollutants and development. His goal is to preserve this treasure for future generations.

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.