Duane Schuettpelz is starting to retire. This process will take some time. The chief of the wastewater section for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources holds vast reservoirs of institutional memory. For more than 40 years, he has been at the center of Wisconsin's efforts to clean up its rivers and streams.
Trained as an engineer, Schuettpelz began his career in 1967 with the Department of Resource Development. Within a year, he says, parts of the resource department had merged with the old conservation department to create the DNR. He has devoted his entire career to improving the health of Wisconsin's waters.
"Over that time," he reflects, "I've probably seen as much change in water quality, or improvement in water quality, as anyone ever saw or ever will see." Early on, he remembers, "birds were literally walking across the sludge on the Fox and Wisconsin rivers." Paper mills and other point-source polluters were dumping untreated waste and sewage into state rivers. "It was like black water," Schuettpelz recalls.
"One of the interesting comments I heard back during that time was, why were we worried about protecting fish in the Wisconsin River when there were no fish there to protect anyway," he says. "At the time, the claim was there was no way to treat the wastewater."
Back at the start of his career, he says, "a lot of municipalities had wastewater treatment facilities that were little more than wide spots in the sewer." The standards of the time amounted to little more than filtering out the big stuff.
Policies began to change with the 1972 passage of the Clean Water Act. "Then we really started clamping down on point-source pollution," Schuettpelz says, meaning discharges piped out of, for example, factories and mills. But even with tools provided by that federal law, pushing change was "extremely time-consuming."
Gradually, pollution standards were increased from "the big stuff" to thresholds for toxic substances measured in parts per million. Schuettpelz credits a number of factors for this, including the upgrade of obsolete wastewater treatment infrastructures.
Another factor over the last 40 years was the attentive and persistent efforts of scores of his DNR colleagues, hundreds of wastewater treatment operators, consulting engineers and environmental compliance staffs at the state's pulp and paper mills. Schuettpelz also acknowledges the leadership demonstrated by figures including Wisconsin Govs. Warren Knowles and Patrick Lucey, and DNR secretaries Anthony Earl and Carroll "Buzz" Besadny.
Married for 28 years and the father of two grown sons, Schuettpelz - who is 63 but looks 10 years younger thanks in part to his preference for biking to work - recognizes the good fortune he has enjoyed while working under such enlightened leaders. "I look at my peers in other states," he says, "and I sense frustration at not being able to do what they want to do." States like Ohio and Indiana, he notes, "don't seem to have the history and tradition we have in Wisconsin." Should we count our blessings in this regard? "I think so."
Ignorance can be a persistent obstacle to reversing the pollution of state waters, he observes. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, for example, during debates over proposals to ban phosphates in laundry detergents, "home economy departments at universities sent people to testify that washing machines would fall apart," he says.
Schuettpelz came to Madison in 1963 to study engineering at the University of Wisconsin. He grew up on a small dairy farm in Oconto County, settled by his great-great-grandfather in 1873. Bordering a first-class trout stream and some DNR land, it covers 173 acres. In addition to cows, there were pigs, chickens and big gardens. "My folks are still living on that farm," he notes, but "I learned early on I didn't want to milk cows."
Instead, he was "drawn to water and the challenge of these problems," he says. His family's background in agriculture has nevertheless provided him with essential perspective as his profession has shifted its focus.
"The issues we have today are primarily driven by non-point source pollution," he says, referring to urban and rural runoff into watersheds. He reckons non-point source pollution overtook point-source pollution as the larger threat to state waters sometime during the mid- to late-1980s. "That's clearly the future of controlling water quality. The effects are a good deal more subtle."
So are the effects resulting from changes in our individual behaviors, he says, but there are a host of things each of us can do to reduce our wastewater footprints. Conserve water, Schuettpelz begins. Install a rain garden on your property. Wash dishes by hand, not in a dishwasher. Set laundry loads to the appropriate size. Think before you turn on the tap. Don't take water for granted.
"One thing that drives me nuts, of course, is the bottled-water craze," he adds. "To me, that's waste. Maybe it's my conservation-minded upbringing. Growing up on a farm, you're more frugal."
Be sensitive to people living downstream, he continues. "Don't throw stuff in the street. Don't take a 20-minute shower. Take a five-minute shower. If you can't wash it off in five minutes, it's not going to wash off in 20."
And one more thing, he concludes: "Stand up and shout once in a while."