Melissa Malott traces her interest in conservation to the 1990s when she was growing up on a small Door Peninsula farm amid the hubbub of five siblings. She found peace and solitude riding the family’s ponies, Daizy and Violet, over fields and along streambeds.
Last year, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi appointed Malott, 34, to the newly created post of executive assistant for environmental issues. That puts her out front on efforts to clean up Madison’s chain of lakes. Despite decades of work, the nutrient phosphorus continues to run off farm fields, throwing the lake’s biology out of whack and spurring unnatural growth of thick, foul-smelling algae and weeds.
Malott graduated from St. Norbert College and the UW-Madison Law School, then founded a nonprofit law firm in Madison that specialized in representing poor people.
Next, she served as the water quality director for Clean Wisconsin, an environmental advocacy group in Madison that played a role in developing the 2010 state Department of Natural Resources restrictions on nutrient discharges into streams and lakes.
Malott said the rule is groundbreaking because it sets specific, numeric limits on phosphorus emissions while allowing flexibility for industrial polluters and sewage treatment plants. They can postpone costly equipment upgrades when they are releasing too many pounds of phosphorus, as long as they pay for measures that reduce farm nutrient runoff by an equal amount.
Malott lives just off the Capitol Square. She loves to travel, run long distances and enjoy local restaurants and farmers markets with friends.
Q: So, you’re a foodie.
A: The local food scene is so great. ... I have a lot of friends who are farmers, dairy or vegetable. ... It’s such a big point of our community, how we share food.
Q: What is the most important environmental issue facing Dane County?
A: Cleaning up our lakes. That’s connected to every aspect of our community. ... The lakes are so key to our quality of life and key to our perception of our quality of life.
Q: You view the 2010 DNR rule on nutrient pollution as very promising.
A: It’s the most exciting thing that’s happened with the Clean Water Act in a decade. ... It’s not some vague rule like “Clean up the lakes.” There is a specific standard for how much phosphorous is allowed in the lake. If there is no requirement to reduce the numbers, you could just go up to the farms you know are easy to work with, even if they are not the major sources. There were decades of water projects in the past that didn’t work.
Q: Are we now seeing results in Wisconsin?
A: It’s a new system, and it’s taken a while to figure out. People are frustrated ... We’ve made progress with our pilot project in Dane County. We’re testing a bunch of things to show we can identify phosphorus runoff, and make predictions about how to reduce it, and then verify afterward how much it was reduced.
Q: Are you concerned that the Legislature recently passed a bill to extend the deadlines for industrial polluters, and give them a new option that doesn’t require keeping a certain amount of phosphorus from reaching the water?
A: I’m not worried about the impact of the bill here in Dane County because everyone here is focused on (implementing the rule), and sees that as the only path to getting clean lakes.
Q: How has the political environment changed for environmental issues in the last few years?
A: There’s two different things going on. It seems like more and more people understand the risks that climate change poses to society, so it becomes easier to talk about. ... There’s also more awareness of the risks we face from environmental toxins. ... At the same time, it is more difficult because the Republicans who are in charge of the state are less interested. ... The Republicans in Congress have a similar stance.
Q: In the last few months, there have been two manure spills at a county-sponsored biodigester near Waunakee. You’ve noted that the digester has kept far, far more phosphorus out of the lakes than may have gone in because of the spills.
A: It’s a fact that it’s a drop in the bucket compared to how much phosphorus is being taken out of the watershed by the digester. There’s always a risk when you have a large quantity of a pollutant in one place. … We are going to learn as we go. This is a new system, a new industry and a new public-private partnership.
— Interview by Steven Verburg