Profile in Conservation

WI Green Fire, September 19, 2022

Tom Jerow pumpkin

Tom Jerow is the incoming president of Wisconsin’s Green Fire (WGF). Tom has served on WGF’s board since the group’s founding in 2017, and he is a member of two work groups: Water Resources and Environmental Rules, and Public Trust and Wetlands. Tom retired from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) in 2013 when he served as Northern Region Water Leader. He worked at WDNR for 34 years, primarily in the water program and in solid waste. 

We asked Tom, a native of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, about his path from a University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point soil science degree to a career with the WDNR, and persuaded him to share a light-hearted, on-the-job story. 

Why did you pick soils for a major in college? How did you decide to take a job with the WDNR immediately after graduation?

At UW-Stevens Point you are required to take introductory classes in a broad range of natural resources fields and topics. I actually started as a forestry major but was fascinated (and still am) with the living biome in the soil. I took graduate-level hydrogeology classes while employed to enhance my professional credentials, quickly learning the interconnectedness of soil and water.

My dream job was to map soils out west, maybe Wyoming or Colorado. A professor suggested I apply for a job at WDNR in solid waste management, and gave me a really good reference so I got the job offer even before I graduated. Before I started work at the department, I went on a camping trip to a beloved place in the U.P., the Sylvania Wilderness.

While I was camping, my mother got a call from the Soil Conservation Service in Wyoming. “Oh,” she remembered saying to the caller, “he already has a job,” and she hung up! I didn’t find this out for several months, and only after a fellow Stevens Point graduate who got the job thanked me for turning it down.

Please describe one or two incidents involving you on the job that were memorable and make a good story at WGF events.

My first job at WDNR was helping Northern Wisconsin shift from a long tradition of local trash dumps where open burning was allowed to a modern solid waste management system.  The town dump was a cultural institution in northern counties and the transition was not easy.  The highlight of my day was talking with dump attendants.  I certainly met some interesting characters like James Frank Kotera, or JFK, as he was known. He was the dump attendant in Highland, Wisconsin. JFK, in his spare time, had amassed the world’s heaviest ball of twine by weight. Like a lot of dump attendants, he’d talk your ear off just to divert your attention from the burning tires over in the corner. He now runs the town transfer station, where recyclables are collected and sent to processors, and waste is shipped to a modern sanitary landfill.

Tom in his hazmat suit fighting mosquitoes

For about one-third of my career, I collected water samples at potentially contaminated sites in northern Wisconsin. We followed U.S. Environmental Protection Act protocols carefully. Due to the sensitive nature of the sampling, we were not allowed to use ANY mosquito repellent.  I learned to dress in layers just to protect my skin from the hordes of mosquitoes. My co-worker, Chuck, wore a tank top and shorts – he was one of those fortunate people who mosquitoes ignore.  I, on the other hand, would sometimes wear my hazmat suit in hot muggy weather just to keep the blood in my body from being drained.

What was the impact of the federal Clean Water Act on the waters of Wisconsin?

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, there were three landmark federal laws that challenged industry, government, and the public to improve water and air quality.  They were: Clean Air Act of 1963, Clean Water Act of 1972, and  the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976, which regulated waste management and superfund programs. In Wisconsin, we also have the Groundwater Protection Act of 1983 which sets standards for groundwater quality – something that is lacking in the federal laws.

This suite of laws was implemented over time and allowed industry and municipalities to plan, adapt, and invest in pollution prevention infrastructure.  Municipalities started by getting chunks out, literally, of wastewater to be discharged to streams and lakes. From that primary treatment, they advanced to secondary treatment, which further cleaned the wastewater.

Industry and municipalities also removed phosphorus, which is responsible for intense algae blooms on lakes and rivers, to meet strict state and federal standards. Many of our water bodies still have intense algae blooms mainly caused by agriculture and urban stormwater runoff – a problem yet to be solved.

What are some lessons you have learned working with factories, farms, mines, and municipalities while protecting Wisconsin’s water resources?

There are many barriers to looking at the environment and ecosystems holistically.  Human minds and bureaucracies tend to divide issues into what are commonly called silos, or distinct topics.

Then there are the issues of scale and political boundaries that also can be barriers. Mercury in fish was and is an issue in the Great Lakes region. It is particularly important to the indigenous people who rely on fish for subsistence.

Mercury reduction strategies required the WDNR’s air program to work with the water and fisheries programs, and in cooperation with governments across the Great Lakes region, including other states, Canada, and the Sovereign Indigenous Nations. Industrial air emissions were the largest source of mercury in the Great Lakes region. The copper smelter at the White Pine mine in the Upper Peninsula was by far the biggest single source of mercury.

We’ve made great progress in reducing mercury from all sources but still have legacy contamination that has accumulated in waterways and wetlands, and slowly accumulates through the food chain. Unfortunately, the only way to reduce human exposure is to reduce your consumption of fish.

What is your advice for young professionals and students who are interested in careers in conservation and protection of natural resources?

I so admire the young professionals entering the fields of natural resources and environmental protection today. They are confronting huge challenges, like climate change, that seem to dwarf the challenges I faced at the beginning of my career. Yet, they are ready and willing to meet those challenges head-on.

It’s so exciting to be starting out on a new career in a field that you love and are passionate about.  My advice is to take time to enjoy the outdoors. I practice forest bathing, which is just really taking a walk in the woods, once or twice a week to bring things back into perspective. It’s all about balancing your work with some nature-based recreation. Find something outdoors that you love to do, and just do it!

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