Mel Vollbrecht’s advice for water advocates: “Get creative”

Nov 10, 2022 | Citizen Advocacy, DNR

Working for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for over thirty years taught Mel Vollbrecht a lot about how government works. Mostly it taught her about the importance of getting creative in solving problems.

“No matter what politicians say or do, the remedy for hopelessness is always rolling up your sleeves and getting involved with your neighbors in local efforts. With rivers, it’s not just the people who use the next pier over or who live next door. A river changes so much from a tiny stream at the headwaters to the big rivers that empty into the Mississippi or a Great Lake. The needs and uses are so diverse. Coalitions are about including the paper company, the marina, other paddlers, farmers. There are so many people who need to get along, you need to be creative.”

Government should be proactive on preventing pollution

In her time working for the DNR, she learned that solving Wisconsin’s problems with threats to our water resources needs to include our state government acting in a way that is a cooperative effort. Our state government must act on threats to water that we know exist and we know are causing health problems. But too often it doesn’t act to prevent problems that will cost us more money to fix in the future.

Mel stands behind her high school science research display on hydrology
From an early age, Mel was interested in the science of water.

“That’s what I wish more people knew about our water. Wisconsin is unique in that our state constitution and many of our environmental laws are based on the idea that water is shared by all of us and is owned by all of us. Decisions should be made in a way that tries to accommodate everyone’s uses, and protect the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people. I wish we thought not just about what we want to do as individuals, but about the multiple uses and benefits of the water we share, and then acted accordingly.”


Department of Natural Resources staff are vital for protecting natural resources

In her career, there was no more important of a time to get creative than during the era of Governor Scott Walker.

Mel Vollbrecht samples water while leaning off a pier on a cloudy Wisconsin day.
Mel rolls up her sleeves to sample water and search for invasive species.

“Agency staff were only allowed to do what was explicitly mandated in a state statute,” Vollbrecht remembered, “even if the wording described something more to actually achieve the intent of the law or allow us to solve problems. We certainly couldn’t do much to prevent problems. But I had the smartest staff. It was our job to figure out what to do to protect groundwater. Nitrate is a problem all over the state and while farmers wouldn’t work with us publicly, they were willing to do work with us privately.”

Even during times when agency leadership weren’t supportive of DNR staff or new initiatives to protect Wisconsin’s water, Mel said that staff were still expected to answer their phones and address questions from the public.

“That’s why community members should still call and ask for the help and advice they need to protect water,” she said. “That’s always the way you start to change things. It’s the basis of helping your neighbors and letting local and state elected officials know what is needed to make better decisions about our natural resources.”

Mel’s advice for those who want to protect Wisconsin’s water

Mel’s best advice for people who want to protect water is not just to get creative, but also to get involved on the local level with a water protection group. Just as Wisconsin is covered with rivers, creeks and lakes, many local waterways have a group of committed people who care for those waterways. Local groups do everything from hosting volunteer days for river clean ups to organizing diverse stakeholders who work to fund major restoration projects.

Mel remembers how important it was during the Walker years for residents in central Wisconsin who were concerned about a proposed concentrated animal feeding operation to advocate for their own groundwater quality. They tested their drinking water wells, hired experts to analyze the data, and shared that information with the DNR staff and local elected leaders. Even if DNR staff were not encouraged to take immediate action with the information, they did post the data online so others could get it and use it.

“That’s what local river groups can do too,” she said. “They can ask questions and share information.”

Mel serves as the board president of River Alliance of Wisconsin because the organization has a history of working with local groups to figure out how to deal with the problems of water pollution, climate change, and all the ways people are starting to pay attention to why our clean water future depends on healthy rivers.

– Stacy Harbaugh, Communications Director


This message is made possible by generous donors who believe people have the power to protect and restore water. Become a member of River Alliance of Wisconsin today.