Freshwater Scientist Makes Waves in Green Bay

Sarah Bartlett

Sarah Bartlett, Water Resources Specialist at NEW Water — a water resource utility serving Northeast Wisconsin that cleans 38 million gallons of clean water per day — is collaborating with the Wisconsin Idea Seminar to bring the 2020 Bay Tour to Green Bay. Bartlett received her B.S. from UW-Madison, her M.S. from UW-Milwaukee, and her Ph.D. from UW-Milwaukee. Much of Bartlett’s work focuses on monitoring water quality, specifically with cyanobacteria and cyanotoxins. In this interview, she discusses her tropical field experiences, Green Bay’s lengthy longitudinal study, and one of NEW Water’s new projects with NASA. 

In what ways did your time as an undergrad at UW-Madison help lead you to where you are now? There were two pivotal experience in my undergraduate that greatly shaped where I am now. The first was a class – American Environmental History with Bill Cronon. I don’t think I have ever been so engaged in a lecture style class before and I remember thanking him after turning him my semester exam for a truly extraordinary class. I still didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew I needed future career choices to focus on the environmental greater good. The second experience was a summer study abroad with the Ceiba Foundation – I had been fascinated with the idea of doing research in the tropical rainforest and this was my first exposure to not only rainforests, but also intense field work. I loved it. I loved everything about that experience from the travel, to the research and exploration. It was truly embracing the Wisconsin Idea.

NEW Water BoatWhat were your experiences with water like before you landed this job — had you spent much time on boats prior to NEW Water? Following my undergrad, I was pretty torn between going to graduate school for tropical ecology or freshwater sciences. I took a gap year between undergrad and grad school and volunteered as a research assistant at La Selva Biological Research Station in Costa Rica and kept getting drawn to the water. I decided that I could still pursue any field of research after graduate school and I had to start somewhere so I chose UW-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences for my master’s which led to an opportunity for a Ph.D. in Freshwater Sciences that I couldn’t turn down. For the past 6 years I have been researching cyanobacterial blooms and cyanotoxins in the eutrophic Lake Winnebago-Green Bay systems, which includes my doctoral work and my work at NEW Water. Prior to working at NEW Water, my boating exposure was limited to recreational water crafts, although I have always been comfortable on the water. I used a small boat for field work on Lake Winnebago and was comfortable navigating that large body of water but I don’t think I quite realized how large a 40 foot boat was until my first day at NEW Water.

What does it mean to you to be part of such a lengthy longitudinal study of the Bay? I am extremely proud to have taken over the Aquatic Monitoring Program at NEW Water. It is amazing that a sewerage district is responsible for such a lengthy study of lower Green Bay and the lower Fox River and its one of the longest monitoring programs within the Great Lakes. I just wrapped up year 33 of the program.

Can you talk more about the recent NEW Water collaboration with NASA on SeaPRISM monitoring? Green Bay has a long history of summer algal blooms, likely due to cyanobacteria and these blooms can actually be seen from satellite images. NEW Water was invited to join the team with NASA on the AERONET-OC initiative due to its well-established Aquatic Monitoring Program and continued dedication to protecting water. The AERONET-OC instrument referred to as the SeaPRISM is a well-calibrated device which records water color in the Bay to enhance water quality products derived from a suite of satellite missions launched and operated by NASA, the United States Geological Survey (USGS), and the European Space Agency (ESA). The SeaPRISM, which stands for “Photometer Revision for Incident Surface Measurements,” is mounted on a pole in open water in the Bay, at one of NEW Water’s regular monitoring locations where data including nutrients, chlorophyll-a, and turbidity are collected. This makes Green Bay a unique site where both color measurements and water quality data are available. As part of our monitoring program, we not only could provide historical water quality information, but we also are out sampling weekly and could deploy, monitor and retrieve the equipment in addition to collecting samples to help ground truth the project.

How do you see the Wisconsin Idea in action with the work that you do? At NEW Water, we strive to protect our most valuable resource–water– and it’s not something we take lightly. One of things I love most about working at NEW Water is because it is the Wisconsin Idea – my work happens outside of the facility fence – field work, engaging with the public or educating others on Green Bay water quality.

Sarah BartlettHow do you think that water quality issues in Green Bay can best be addressed? Green Bay can be considered “everyone’s backyard’, and the argument that “it’s not in my backyard so I don’t have to worry about it or I can’t do anything to help,” doesn’t apply. Lower Green Bay suffers from excess nutrients and runoff from urban and rural landscapes. Individuals need to consider themselves as non-point source polluters — as opposed to point source pollution that has one identifiable origin — and do their part to help reduce contaminants and nutrients running off the land and into the water. Actions can be as simple as not over-salting in the winter, picking up dog waste or keeping leaves raked and out of storm drains.

What do you hope that participants on the Wisconsin Idea Seminar 2020 Bay Tour will take away from their tour at NEW Water in May? I first hope participants will enjoy touring the facility – it’s easy to take for granted the advanced sewage treatment in place but we are a facility that operates 24/7, rain or shine, and there are a lot of great people at NEW Water dedicated to protecting our valuable resource that is water, at all hours of the day. I also am excited to have participants experience Green Bay – it’s the largest freshwater estuary and it is in the midst of a story of recovery. Dredging for PCB’s in the lower Fox River (which deposits into Green Bay) has been an ongoing billion dollar clean-up effort that will wrap up in 2020. There is a multi-partner habitat restoration project, Cat Island Restoration, that involves reconstructing three islands in the lower bay, providing habitat for shorebirds, waterfowl, amphibians, turtles, invertebrates, and fur-bearing mammals. The list of ongoing rehabilitation efforts goes on and it’s a really exciting time to be in Green Bay.


Hello, Wisconsin! Stories of the Wisconsin Idea is a profile series that highlights the remarkable ways Wisconsin Idea Seminar alumni, collaborators, and others are animated by the Wisconsin Idea on and off campus.