Door County woman is first winner of award named for Kewaunee County clean water activist Bill Iwen
MADISON – A pioneering citizen activist for improving water quality in Kewaunee County now has an award for environmental advocacy named in his honor.
The first-ever Bill Iwen Community and Environmental Justice Award was announced this month during an event at the Kress Pavilion in Egg Harbor. The event was hosted by award sponsor Midwest Environmental Advocates, or MEA, a Madison-based nonprofit environmental law center celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.
The Iwen Award "recognizes local leaders who make a lasting difference in Wisconsin by building community and advocating for the rights of all citizens to a clean environment," according to a press release from MEA.
Charolette Baierl, a Door County resident who was inspired by Iwen's work to become an advocate for clean water in the region, was named the first recipient of the award.
"This award means that regular people, all people, are qualified to stand up and make a difference in their community," Baierl said.
"He is just the quintessential good citizen … the gold standard for citizen advocacy in Wisconsin," said Kimberlee Wright, MEA executive director, in explaining why the organization named an award for Iwen.
"The idea is, we all need clean water to live, and if the government won't do something, citizens need to stand up. We really are indebted to the brave people who take on these huge burdens."
Wright said MEA will give the award at least once a year, perhaps more often if the organization decides it has enough worthy candidates in a given year.
"I am honored to have such an award given in my name and hope it inspires other ordinary citizens to become more active on behalf of our environment," Iwen said.
Kewaunee County has been hit hard by water quality problems in recent years, but Wright said that no matter how tough things became while advocating for clean water, Iwen brought a positive attitude that encouraged others.
"Even when in Kewaunee County you couldn't drink the water or open windows, he always had a way of lifting spirits," Wright said.
Iwen is a county native who served four years in the U.S. Air Force after graduating from Algoma High School in 1957, then earned a degree to become a dentist from Marquette University in Milwaukee in 1974. He returned to Kewaunee County in 1976 and practiced dentistry for 30 years but grew concerned about continually decreasing water quality in the 1990s and the increasing number of local concentrated animal feeding operations, which generate huge amounts of manure.
"My father owned a farm that had a section of the Kewaunee River running through it," Iwen said. "We used the river for extensive recreation. It had good water quality, but when industrial farming started in the 1990s the river ended up impaired. That bothered me."
Wright said when she first met Iwen, he talked about those memories of swimming and fishing in Kewaunee County when he was a boy.
"(Then) he almost cried because he couldn't let his grandkids swim or fish in them (because of water quality concerns)," Wright said. "His boyhood memories stirred his advocacy. He wasn't going to accept that his waters could never be clean again."
Iwen urged the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to become more aware of and involved with water quality hazards in the county. He also set about documenting manure runoff events and conducting water tests on his own time.
He co-founded in 2001 and served as president of the Tri-Lakes Association, which promotes and works on the health of inland Kewaunee County lakes (initially East Alaska, West Alaska and Krohn's, joined last year by Heidmann and Shea's lakes).
In 2011, Iwen worked with fellow citizen Jim Olson and Kewaunee farmers Lynn and Nancy Utesch to form Kewaunee CARES, or Citizens Advocating Responsible Environmental Stewardship, a group that organizes residents to work with the DNR. The Utesches presented the award to Baierl at the Oct. 3 ceremony; Iwen was unable to attend.
Among other activities, Nancy Utesch said Iwen launched a petition through Kewaunee CARES in October 2014 that asked the federal Environmental Protection Agency to get involved with the county's clean water problems under the EPA's Safe Water Drinking Act. She said the EPA subsequently invested time and resources in the matter.
Iwen didn't focus just on water contaminants from manure events but also on the effects of chemicals in the environment, Utesch said. Kewaunee CARES' first effort was to address the burning of plastics across the county, especially pallets and bags used to cover silage on large farms.
Baierl said she met Iwen when she worked in Lynn Utesch's campaign for state Assembly in 2016 and, although involved with political advocacy before then, subsequently became interested in working on water issues.
"Bill, along with other members of Kewaunee CARES, taught me everything I know about ground and surface water issues in our fragile … region," Baierl said.
"It’s hard to quantify Bill’s influence on raising awareness about the impact of CAFOs in our region, but the fact that someone like myself, who has no experience in environmental science, public health or farming, can effectively communicate the urgency of the issues at hand is a testament to Bill’s activism … (it) illustrates the impact just one person can have on an issue."
Contact Christopher Clough at 920-741-7952, 920-562-8900 or [email protected].
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This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Door County woman is first winner of award named for Kewaunee County clean water activist Bill Iwen