Cheryl Nenn has spent her life protecting the water. Our work wouldn’t be possible without her partnership.

Feb 28, 2023

“Having clean water is important not only for public safety, but for fishing and our roughly $8 billion water-based tourism economy in the state,” said Cheryl Nenn, longtime water activist and staff member of the Milwaukee Riverkeeper.

For 20 years, Cheryl has studied the Milwaukee River Basin, learned about its species and how people use the water, and worked to clean up the pollution in the water. To say Cheryl is a lover of the water is an understatement – more like she is a part of the Milwaukee waterways. It seems she knows every stream, watershed, pond, and channel to Lake Michigan.

“I've really fallen in love with the rivers…We have three amazing rivers that come together downtown and they each have their own character,” she said. Reminiscing about her childhood, she thinks fondly of fishing with her father and grandfather near a lake in central Illinois. Now you can often find her hiking along the water, kayaking, or patrolling the river on the Milwaukee Riverkeeper boat.

That deep connection to the water and her desire to ensure people have access to it drives her to protect it.

“I grew up along the Great Lakes, so I guess it's always been in my DNA to advocate for them,” she said.

Cheryl pictured here on the Milwaukee River. Photo credit: Eddee Daniel

The impact of partnerships

Wisconsin Conservation Voters and Milwaukee Riverkeeper have a long history of working together to pass legislation and policies that clean up contamination and protect our water for future generations.

In the years leading up to 2008, our organizations worked closely with a statewide coalition to implement the Great Lakes Compact, which is a binational agreement to keep the Great Lakes water in the Great Lakes. Wisconsin Conservation Voters helped thousands of people show up to lobby their elected officials and generate broad public support.

Now years later, our partnership with the Milwaukee Riverkeeper is vital to addressing PFAS contamination in water and protecting people’s health. “Historically, I’ve been really dependent on WCV for their [policy] briefings, conservation notices, and what's going on at the state level,” Cheryl said.

The unique challenge of PFAS, forever chemicals

The particularly scary challenge with the PFAS problem, Cheryl said, is the many sources of it and that we still don’t know enough about the contamination. PFAS, or Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of highly toxic human-made chemicals that have been linked to a number of negative health effects, including thyroid disease, decreased fertility in women, and ​​more.

In Milwaukee, firefighting foam containing PFAS has been used in firefighter training drills near the General Mitchell Airport. Those PFAS have seeped into the groundwater. “Stormwater runoff from the airport makes its way into Wilson Creek, which goes to the Kinnickinnic River and into Lake Michigan,” she said.

Lake Michigan provides drinking water for roughly 40 million people. PFAS have also been found in private wells in the areas surrounding Milwaukee because of groundwater contamination.

People in the area aren’t just dependent on the water for drinking – many families rely on fishing in these rivers to feed their families. The Milwaukee Riverkeeper team and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) have found high levels of PFAS in fish populations.

As Cheryl patrols the river, she sees many people catching fish to bring home to their families – often people with low-incomes who are dependent on their catch. “I talk to people and say ‘you have to really be careful with your health,’ but it's hard to say that to them if that fish is the difference between them having some protein for dinner or not,” Cheryl said.

There’s no question that even a small amount of PFAS consumption can be detrimental to our health, but corporate polluters manufacturing PFAS in their products continue to operate with minimal regulations.

Establishing clean water standards

Last year, Wisconsin Conservation Voters led efforts to establish Wisconsin’s first ever statewide PFAS-specific water standards. This is a tremendous step to protecting the health of Wisconsinites and took years of advocacy.

“There’s money in the state budget [to address the PFAS issue] because of advocacy by WCV, Milwaukee Riverkeeper, and many other groups in the state,” Cheryl said.

Along with our coalition partners, we are continuing to push for more clean water standards and lower limits on the amount of PFAS allowed in water. Without regulations, corporate polluters will continue to contaminate our waterways.

The importance of the Wisconsin Supreme Court

It's important we have a strong court that can address environmental contamination and support public safety regulations like PFAS that are vital to protecting the safety of our drinking water.

Laws and standards are only as strong as the justices who uphold them.

In the coming year, the Wisconsin Supreme Court is likely to see cases about DNR authority to require polluters to clean up chemical spills according to the Spills Law, oil pipeline siting, how we’re holding corporate polluters accountable to the law, and more.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court election on April 4 is critical. This election will have direct effects on our waters and our health for generations.

Our success protecting the waters and health of Wisconsinites wouldn’t be possible without trusted partners like Cheryl and Milwaukee Riverkeeper.

The team at Wisconsin Conservation Voters is doing everything we can to elect a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice in April who will uphold our environmental laws, hold corporate polluters accountable, and protect the health of people throughout the state.


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