Landmark Water Quality Rules Approved

, By Clean Wisconsin

Innovative “phosphorus rules” and NR 151 herald a new future for cleaner waters in Wisconsin, are the first of their kind in the U.S.

MADISON — As summer comes to a close, Wisconsin is headed for cleaner waters  thanks to innovation and cooperation from unlikely groups. A set of state rules, NR 102 and 217 (the “phosphorus rules”) and NR 151, that address algae-forming phosphorus pollution in our waterways became effective September 8th.

“For 30 years, phosphorus has been under-regulated, contaminating nearly half our lakes, rivers and streams, and marring Wisconsin’s reputation for clean, clear waters,” says Melissa Malott, Clean Wisconsin’s water program director and attorney. Malott was on the DNR’s advisory committee for the phosphorus rules and publicly commented on NR 151. “Wisconsin is the first state to offer an adaptive, customizable rule package for improving water quality; together, these rules are pioneering a new, cleaner future for our water while staying true to the Clean Water Act.”

These rules address the main water quality problems — phosphorus and manure runoff — affecting Wisconsinites’ ability to use our waterways for fishing and swimming.

When a farm applies too much manure onto farm fields, it can easily be washed into rivers and lakes by rain or melting snow; manure contains both harmful bacteria, like E. coli, and phosphorus. Phosphorus, also found in agricultural chemicals and discharged from factories and sewage treatment plants, is the main culprit behind toxic blue-green algae as well as Cladophora, the nuisance algae that can make Lake Michigan beaches unsafe in summer. Nearly one-half of Wisconsin’s waterways are so polluted by phosphorus that the federal government lists them as impaired.

“This rule package, developed with input from farmers, municipalities, environmentalists and more, will be a catalyst for polluters to work together to find the most effective, affordable ways to clean phosphorus discharge from our waterways,” says Malott. “When a single pound of phosphorus can cause 500 pounds of ugly, stinking algae growth, we can’t afford to be idle on the issue.”

This precedent-setting package of water quality rules is the result of collaboration and compromise: a variety of stakeholders worked together on this rule package for years.

“I want my water clean and functional,” says Valerie Dantoin, who owns and runs Full Circle Farm with her husband in Seymour, Wis., and is an avid canoeist and angler. “We work to spread manure responsibly. We’re not perfect, but most of us who farm are tired of a few bad actors who often spread manure at the wrong time, place and volume. I’m pleased to see the state addressing this problem. It is critical that we work together to tackle our toughest problems now instead of putting them off until tomorrow.”

How the rules work:

The “phosphorus rules” are strong and innovative in curbing phosphorus pollution.

  • The phosphorus rule package sets a limit to how much phosphorus will be allowed in waterways, and that limit will protect our waterways into the future. Once achieved, algae blooms will largely be a thing of the past.
  • The phosphorus rule uses all the flexibility of the Clean Water Act to allow phosphorus reductions in the most cost-effective manner. Using an “Adaptive Management” tool, permittees will have options to most cost-effectively reduce phosphorus pollution.

NR 151 requires farms to better prevent manure from washing into waterways.

  • Using new technology, farms with the potential to pollute the most vulnerable waterways must manage their manure more responsibly.
  • This requirement can be extended to other farms as needed.