By Mackenzie Consoer
Wendy Dart is a fierce protector of her community. Always eager to get her feet wet, she conducts citizen stream monitoring, keeps bat specimens in her freezer, writes advocacy letters to politicians, and daydreams about local Earth Day celebrations. Against traditional Midwestern norms, she isn’t afraid to join political conversations she overhears in public and her curiosity drives her to ask questions in almost equal step to her statements. She talks fast, but thinks even faster. Those that care about Lake Pepin and its communities should celebrate her presence. She’s got your back, meaning she works relentlessly, without pay, to investigate and improve public health, including water resources.
Environmental Public Health
Wendy and her husband, Dr. Richard Dart, are the good kind of partners in crime. They work to bring awareness to the environment as a public health concern, a critical relationship that left an impression on them while in the Air Force during the Vietnam War. To do so, Wendy and Richard use their platform as a nurse and physician respectively, to make comparisons across the medical and environmental professions. Richard routinely discusses the environment at medical conferences and Wendy has become a community activist for water resources, climate change, and healthcare. Together in their free time, they have conducted citizen stream monitoring, both in the Central Wisconsin and Lake Pepin areas.
“Public health is about prevention and understanding exposure sources. It’s about clean air and water. It’s about educating people on that connection,” Wendy tells me.
The Dart’s fell in love with Lake Pepin at first sight. They were aware of Lake Pepin on maps, but when they saw it in-person, Wendy says, “You just feel like you need to stop and sing opera or something.”
Frequent drives through the area to visit family got perpetually longer as they played local explorers. Not long after, and over 20 years ago, they bought a home and land in Maiden Rock, WI. When mining companies moved to area for frac sand, the Dart’s made a permanent move too. Why? Wendy wanted a vote and voice in the matter.
Citizen Steam Monitoring
Data is a powerful tool to have in your toolbox. Without it, management predictions are wrought with uncertainty and conflict. The winning numbers often go to the most powerful bidder. That’s one reason Wendy believes that citizen stream monitoring is so important. In her mind, water sampling is lab testing for public health. It reduces uncertainty and allows for better diagnosis and treatment. Rivers and streams are simply the environment’s blood vessels.
“We thought that if we tested the Rush River, then we could show people the numbers just like a lab test at the hospital. If data was available, people might be able to make better decisions. You would never take lab tests away from a doctor and treat a patient blindly,” says Wendy.
From 2008-2012, Wendy routinely put on waiters and hauled equipment to sampling locations along the Rush River, a class II trout stream flowing into Lake Pepin. During this time, the Rush River was overwhelmingly healthy. As expected, temperatures were cold, water clarity high, phosphorus low, and macro-invertebrate populations diverse and healthy.
Wendy discusses water sampling with childlike excitement, “I didn’t know what was living under those rocks! And it is cool that you don’t need a microscope for it. It’s just there. Plus, I just love the feeling of being in my waiters chest deep in the stream!”
Despite overall health, the Rush River does have episodic water quality concerns that Wendy’s vigilant water monitoring has detected. While she doesn’t sample in the rain, she does observe more turbid waters and erosion along the stream banks after storms. In fact, one of her biggest challenges is finding a consistent sampling location because high flows degrade the stream and make some locations inaccessible.
One particular storm is ingrained in her memory because it flooded parts of Maiden Rock with foul smelling stormwater, which she assumes was fecal contamination from upstream animal feedlot operations or CAFOs. As expected, her monitoring data after the event reflected a major ecological disturbance. The river was turbid, oxygen was low, and the macro-invertebrate populations seemed to have shifted overnight. Wendy recalls, “It was shocking for us because we always had this clear water with high oxygen and healthy invertebrates. The ecosystem can tell you a lot. Just like getting your labs!”
Citizen monitoring also played an integral role in the local frac sand controversy. When a mining company showed interest in blasting areas along the Rush River, Wendy used technical guidance from the WI DNR to identify cold water springs that would be destroyed by such actions. She didn’t find the temperature drops that characterize cold springs because of their sheer abundance. “You can see them. They just look like little fingers all along the bank,” Wendy says.
With leadership from Fred Harding and the Save Our Hills campaign, local monitoring data, including Wendy’s, was used to write letters that successfully ensured mining operations would keep their distance from the Rush River. “I was surprised,” said Wendy, “I killed a lot of trees during that fight to describe the health hazards posed by air pollution from silica sand. The lawyers just kept saying it wasn’t hazardous, which isn’t true.” But having current data about local springs feeding into river made it easier for both sides to agree not to mine so close to the Rush River.
Wendy and Richard Dart had to take a temporary reprieve from citizen monitoring to focus on their own health, but Wendy is excited to start again. She’s heard reports that water quality is improving from an upstream focus on conservation farming. “It’s like magic,” she says about conservation tillage and cover crops. She is ready to see for herself.
Call to Action
Wendy Dart is almost haunted by the adage, “Once you know, you can’t pretend you don’t.” It’s not always easy, but answering the call to action seems to bring her temporary relief from her concern for others. With a laugh, Wendy acknowledges that stream monitoring has its challenges, “The Rush River is an appropriate name! I fell down once and my waiters filled up with water. I had to go home early that day!” She goes on, “It’s so beautiful though. It just makes my heart happy. It’s also a time when my husband and I talk. What’s under this rock? Look at this? How are the grandkids?”
Wendy has also found stream monitoring to be educational and empowering. She has learned how to conduct field sampling, identify macro-invertebrates, and appreciate the interconnectedness of our environment. It’s also taught her the importance of staying engaged. “If we don’t protect our water and convince others upstream to mitigate impacts, will we have local businesses anymore? Absolutely not. Who would drive around through mud flats?”
Admittedly, Wendy is aware that having tough conversations and calling representatives can be an emotional hurdle even for her. She says, “It’s hard. It’s really hard, but if I don’t say something, I stay up all night thinking about a missed opportunity. You have to call your representatives and stay engaged. You certainly won’t want to, but if you care about something, you have to do it.”
Her advice? “I do some deep breathing and Thai-Chi before calling or visiting representatives,” Wendy confesses.
Civic action seems to be second nature to Wendy, but she also understands the importance of a supporting cast. “I hope to stay in engaged, but also hope people remind me to stay engaged,” she says while hinting to another important tool in the toolbox. Cultivating a sense of community makes getting involved more fun and provides more accountability to stay active. Ultimately, it makes us all more resilient.
Thank you, Wendy, for being a grassroots gladiator and reminding us that we all have something to contribute… and that it can be done with a smile.
Are you interested in getting more engaged or volunteering for the first time? Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance (LPLA) is taking a page from Wendy’s playbook and creating volunteering opportunities designed to be both fun and rewarding. Sign-up here to be notified about citizen stream monitoring, community organizing, event staffing, and administrative gatherings (think envelope stuffing, but with refreshments and good conversation).