UWSP professor and researcher leaves legacy of water conservation
As a researcher focusing on water quality, Byron Shaw was usually ahead of the pack. Consider this Shaw quote: “People are very concerned about pesticides, yet lead in water may be much more worrisome.” The date was Oct. 31, 1987, nearly three decades before lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan, became a national story.
Shaw, 73, died Friday, Oct. 21. He was a professor of water resources at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP) for 32 years, where he was also a UW-Extension water quality specialist. He retired in 2000, but continued to work on water quality issues as a consultant.
He was a resident of rural Amherst Junction, where he lived on a farmstead with his wife, Margaret.
His quote about lead notwithstanding, Shaw’s work on pesticides and other chemicals was trailblazing. He was the first researcher in the state and among the first in the nation to detect their presence in ground water.
Shaw identified the highly toxic and persistent pesticide aldicarb in central Wisconsin ground water in the 1980s. It got there because it leached from potato fields. Some in the agribusiness industry and at the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the UW-Madison cast doubt on his findings.
They were wrong. He was right. Aldicarb was withdrawn from use in Wisconsin by its manufacturer. Shaw’s work led to the adoption of a 1984 ground water quality law in Wisconsin that was considered a model for the nation.
His research on acid rain, which he detected in Wisconsin’s waters, was also met with doubt from the business interests, the DNR and others. Shaw noted that in Wisconsin, acid rain fell year-round. In the winter, it was acid snow. Later, the nation would address acid rain’s impact with new regulations on coal-fired generators and other pollution sources.
His work on nitrates in ground water was also important. Among those who took note: bankers, who began to require nitrate testing before approving home sales. Colleagues noted that he also conducted early research on phosphorous runoff from agricultural sources, a major contributor to surface water quality problems. But that the research, also ahead of its time, was ignored for years.
Shaw, whose easy-going manner belied his passion for the environment, led regional and state efforts to improve ground water monitoring and protection. He founded UWSP’s Environmental Task Force Program in 1972, collecting data useful in education, research and public service programs and to policymakers at the local, state and national levels.
The program is now called the Water and Environmental Analysis Lab, a DNR-certified, state-of-the-art lab that serves Wisconsin citizens, trains future water quality professionals and conducts water quality research.
After retiring from his university work here in 2000, Shaw stayed engaged in water quality and other natural resource issues, serving as a consultant and expert witness in federal court cases regarding concentrated animal feeding operations in western states.
Tributes rolled in upon his death. Christine Thomas, dean of the College of Natural Resources at UWSP, called him “a diligent scientist, a wonderful friend and mentor, a real family man, and a great human being. He took his turn responsibly and enthusiastically, and, in the way of a great teacher, left many fine disciples across the country to carry on his solid traditions,” she said, adding: “It was my honor to have been a student, a colleague and a friend of Byron.”
Bonnie Bressers, a former environmental reporter at the Stevens Point Journal, recalled his commitment to the environment: “Byron was unflinchingly passionate in his concern for the quality of the ground water of central Wisconsin, and his efforts helped make possible the passage of some of the most progressive ground water legislation of its time.”
She is an associate professor of journalism at Kansas State University.
“Few people could match his courage and willingness to advocate for water quality even when that advocacy was unwelcome by some. He was unflappable, and he worked tirelessly, oftentimes behind the scenes,” she said.
George Kraft, a professor of water resources and director of the Center for Watershed Science and Education at UWSP, knew Shaw as a colleague and a friend.
“Byron had a multi-faceted life. He was an academic for sure, including after he retired. But he was also a wine-maker, a friend to hundreds, a wood-worker, farmer, canoeist, camper, hunter, and traveler. He was modest, engaging and kind.”
Shaw’s career, Kraft said, “was a textbook example of the Wisconsin Idea – the notion that the boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state. His work touched the lives of thousands.”
As for aldicarb, Bayer CropScience agreed to stop producing it in all world markets by 2015.
Shaw’s obituary is in this week’s Gazette or online at http://localhost:8888/pcgazette/Content/Default/Obituaries/Article/Byron-H-Shaw/-3/6/1695