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Citizen Voices Matter: In Riverwest, Milwaukee

Will Wawrzyn grew up just a few miles from the North Humboldt Bridge in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. Before the neighborhood was home to hot yoga and trendy cantinas, the riverfront was not a big draw for people to visit.

“We grew up along the river,” Will said about his grade school days. “We played along the river and fished – for what it was worth then. In winter we skated on it and played hockey. But in the spring, you’d go down to see what was left when the ice went out. It was a pretty fetid body of water. Fish kills were routine. Things were pretty gross.”

It was during the first Earth Day in 1970 and right before the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972 that Will had what he calls the big epiphany.

“I was a senior in high school and we were fortunate enough to have someone speak at our school from Senator Nelson’s office,” he said. “It inspired me to go to school for biology at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, then on to study natural resources at UW-Stevens Point. After I graduated in ’75, I got a job at the Department of Natural Resources.”

Will’s beat was focused on doing water resource surveys in southeast Wisconsin, from Sheboygan to Racine and from Waukesha County to Lake Michigan. When he started, the Clean Water Act was just beginning to make an impact on Wisconsin’s rivers and lakes.

His decades of research on water quality and the health of fish populations is a part of the complex evolution of the Milwaukee River and its estuary (where Lake Michigan and river water form a unique ecosystem). Will describes how the City of Milwaukee and Metropolitan Sewerage District deserve a lot of credit for balancing the interests of industry and the public, for bringing in support from state and federal governments, investing in infrastructure and for revitalizing the waterfront.

“The waters I spent years studying have greatly benefited from the billions of dollars invested in wastewater treatment, contaminated sediment remediation, dam removal and removing concrete channels from rivers and streams. Good science-based management was able to accurately predict the improvements in environmental quality. What made the Milwaukee River and estuary better took good science, political will and financial resources. We know much about what the remaining problems are and what it will cost to abate them. What’s lacking is the political will and capital to correct them.”

When Will describes how that level of cooperation between public and private interests was successful, he jokes about how as a DNR scientist he was at the bottom of a food chain of people participating in decision making.

“Being at the bottom of the food chain, we were still always involved in decisions,” he explained. “We all understood that good science made good policy when it came to cleaning up the river. When the city, state and federal governments were working together to make the river fishable again, decisions were made with input from the bottom up. They weren’t made from the top down. The DNR’s administration, the legislature and Governors expected and respected your input.”

Now retired after 38 years working for the DNR, Will is concerned with the direction of the agency.

“I worked with some incredible people throughout my career at the DNR who are so dedicated to their work. No one chose this career to get rich. But after the Secretary of the DNR became a cabinet position with the Governor’s office and when the citizen-led board started to have less influence over decisions, that’s when decisions became more centralized and top-down. Special interests weigh heavily on decision making now. And every “reorganization” and major policy change sets us back and frustrates the staffs who are trying to do their jobs. Today, the top of the administration rarely possess backgrounds in resource management, environmental law, science and engineering. Those qualifications used to steer policy.

“Our legislators keep holding up the corporate world as a model – but we don’t make widgets, we’re applying science. Those monumental changes actually make more inefficiencies and lead to bad results. And now retirements and cutbacks to science staff leave the agency with very little legacy knowledge left.”

Still, improvements to the Milwaukee River and the development of its waterfront are something Will can point to as a public good that he played a part in. He feels fortunate to have been involved in the many years of collective effort it took to bring people back to the river.

“I tell people that we were the luckiest generation,” he said. “Our parents may have been the greatest generation, but we were the luckiest to get to see so much technological innovation and positive change. I don’t know what the future holds for the next generation though.”

Will was one of the dozens of retired DNR staffers who are supporting MEA’s Petition for Corrective Action to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, asking for help to get Wisconsin back on track with the Clean Water Act.