Resilience, an essay by Bill Berry

Bill Berry at Joannes Park Swimming Pool in Green Bay on a hot day in 1963. Courtesy of the Neville Public Museum of Brown County.

The resilience of Wisconsin’s communities depends on an understanding of the challenges we face. Bill Berry is an award-winning journalist and author from Stevens Point who has worked tirelessly for decades to bring us the information we need about complex environmental issues.  This essay was written for the Wisconsin Humanities Council and featured in ON Resilience, a publication of the Wisconsin Humanities Council.

Now and then, the Green Bay Press Gazette pulls a 1963 photo of a busy day at the Joannes Park Swimming Pool from the Neville Museum Collection to run once more, showing how 400 kids cooled off on a 90-degree day back then.

In the foreground, looking up at the photographer, stand my childhood friend Nicky Kobriger and me. I’m the 12-year-old blond boy, and I remember the long-ago moment like it was yesterday. We watched the photographer climb to the roof of the pool building, take several photos and then disappear. I don’t remember the photo running in the newspaper that summer, but I’m sure it did. Every few years, it shows up again, and Nicky and I are once again young.

That photo came to mind when the Wisconsin Humanities Council asked me for some personal reflections on a life of a writer covering water issues to help introduce the water-focused programming of the upcoming year. Why a photo of a swimming pool full of kids? Cities like Green Bay built swimming pools in the mid-1950s at least in part because we had polluted the natural waters. Parents wanted kids to have a place to learn to swim and enjoy those hot summer days.

Like many cities, Green Bay’s waters of my childhood were a stinky mess. The Fox River was a sewer for industrial and municipal users. It was eight blocks upwind from our childhood homes, and on some summer nights Nicky, me and the other kids would pull pillows over our heads to block the smell. The river flowed into the Green Bay, which had a pollution plume almost to Door County. The iconic Bay Beach swimming beach of our parents’ youth had long been closed to swimming. It was that way all along big stretches of the bay. I remember a childhood trip to one of my parents’ favorite beaches on the west shore. We were greeted by a sign that said the waters were unsafe for swimming.

I remember the long looks on my parents’ faces, but we kids took it in stride. Rivers and lakes were polluted. Swimming in them was like drinking poison. After all, there were the pools.

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I went away to college in River Falls in 1969 and learned to my surprise that some rivers were actually quite clean and clear. Tromping around the Kinnickinnic River, I contemplated that stream and those back home, and an environmentalist was hatched. Then a U.S. senator named Gaylord Nelson stoked the fire when he came to campus touting something called the Clean Water Act. He made it seem like it was actually possible to make positive change, to repair what we had wrought. I hung on the words of that soft-spoken man.

Sure enough, my first newspaper reporting jobs in central Wisconsin put me face-to-face with the Wisconsin River cleanup. Like the Fox, the Wisconsin was a powerful, hardworking and polluted river that was resilient enough to cleanse itself if given a chance. The river cleanup was a regular beat for news media in those days. It wasn’t easy, and some opponents predicted dire consequences for commerce. But our industrial, municipal and government leaders found common ground and went ahead with the big job. In just a few short decades, rivers like the Fox and Wisconsin and scores of others across the U.S. were reborn. Whole community revitalization projects were built around the suddenly compelling waterfronts. Rivers were economic drivers, community centerpieces, tourism attractions, natural attributes to be cherished.

All of that happened in a few short years, and in my way of looking at it, those river cleanups were among this nation’s major accomplishments of the last century.

Maybe it was heightened awareness, but water issues of all sorts became big news. I kept following the story lines. Or they kept following me. When my wife and I sought to buy our first home, in Wausau, we learned through a well test that the well water was high in nitrates and we couldn’t get a mortgage because banks considered it a high risk. What the heck were nitrates, and how did they get in the water? I did a series of newspaper articles and learned that high nitrates and resulting difficulties were common. People just weren’t talking about it.

Down on the potato fields of the Golden Sands region of central Wisconsin, researchers had found more than nitrates in wells. A potent pesticide, aldicarb, had leached into the ground water from agricultural pest control. I was part of teams that covered the pitched controversy that followed, one that pitted agriculture against environmentalists. Once again, the long public discussion produced common ground, and that led to state ground water quality rules that were a model for the country when adopted in 1984. I’m convinced the constant media attention focused on the situation led to that legislation.

Good as the Clean Water Act was, it failed to address polluted runoff from agriculture and other sources. Changing agricultural practices have exacerbated the problems, and these days dangerous algae blooms are common.

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Everywhere we look in Wisconsin, it seems there’s a water story: Water quality in the Great Lakes, rising nitrate levels and new research linking nitrates to a long list of health impacts, concerns about how to handle the waste from large animal confinement facilities. Then there’s the whole water quantity story, which has been with us since the birth of high-capacity wells capable of pumping more than 100,000 gallons of water per day. The growth of high capacity wells for agricultural irrigation and municipal water supplies in parts of the state has been phenomenal. In the Golden Sands region alone the number of high capacity wells in the Central Sands Area has increased from fewer than 100 in the early 1950s to more than 3,000. Now, we face the question: Do the waters below ground belong to the public or to private entities?

I have spent my life covering water stories, and I suppose I’ll be writing about water issues as long as I’m able. Some, like the big river cleanup of the 1970s, are great legacies to be shared. Others, like the ones we struggle with today, are still being written. In almost all cases, these water stories are also stories about humans and how we resolve conflicts for the good of all.

– Bill Berry, Stevens Point

                                                            Photo Courtesy of Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District