FITCHBURG, Wis. (AP) – State environmental officials adopted sweeping regulations Wednesday to control phosphorus pollution in Wisconsin waters, hoping to slow runaway algae growth and preserve water-based tourism and recreation.
The package creates new restrictions on a wide range of potential sources, from farm fields and barnyards to large-scale wastewater producers. The Natural Resources Board adopted the regulations unanimously after about four hours of discussion.
“In the long run, this may be the single most important action on water quality the Natural Resources Board has ever done,” said Jonathan Ela, the board’s chairman. “This takes us a long ways.”
Biologists believe phosphorus, a chemical commonly found in fertilizer and manure, can cause ugly algae blooms that deplete water oxygen levels, killing aquatic life. The blooms also can cause health problems, including rashes, headaches and nausea. The DNR considers 172 Wisconsin lakes, rivers and streams “impaired waters” because of phosphorus pollution.
The Department of Natural Resources generally prohibits excessive phosphorus in state waters, but the agency hasn’t set out any hard limits.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency has been pushing states for over a decade to impose more precise standards, known as numeric limits, on the total amount of phosphorus allowed in a water body, but only a few states have done it.
Last year, the EPA imposed standards on a state for the first time after environmentalists sued for action in Florida. And in November, several groups, including the Sierra Club and the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, warned the EPA they also planned to sue in Wisconsin unless action was taken.
DNR water experts have been working on phosphorus controls since the early 1980s, but they say research didn’t advance enough to develop solid, science-based numeric limits until recently.
The new rules impose the state’s first phosphorus limits on the agricultural sector.
They restrict phosphorus run-off from fields to 6 pounds per acre annually over an eight-year average. Farmers would not be allowed to plow within 5 feet of a stream bank to prevent erosion and would have to install equipment such as sump pumps to prevent wastewater from milk houses and feed storage structures from running off. Farmers wouldn’t have to abide by the requirements unless the state covers 70 percent of compliance costs.
The rules also lay out per-liter limits in rivers, streams and lakes. River water, for example, could not contain more than 100 micrograms per liter. Municipal wastewater plants, food processors, paper mills and other factories would be allowed to work with farmers to achieve those limits.
Organizations lined up at the board meeting to express support for the rules, including the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation and the Municipal Environmental Group Wastewater Division.
Still, Amber Meyer Smith, program director for Clean Wisconsin, told the board the field run-off standard wasn’t tough enough. She said 84 percent of state farms already meet it. Smith also complained the 5-foot plowing setback wasn’t enough.
Scott Manley is the environmental policy director for Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. He warned the board the regulations would make Wisconsin a regulatory island in the Midwest and put the state at a competitive disadvantage.
He also complained the rules would slam businesses with new costs. The DNR estimates up to 163 municipal plants alone may need new filtration systems that could run a total of $300 million to $1.13 billion.
“That’s an awful lot of money to add to the cost of doing business in this state,” Manley said.
But Don Hammes of Middleton, a member of the Yahara Fishing Club’s board of directors, backs the rules. He said fishing on Madison-area lakes is disgusting.
“The surface of the lakes will be covered with a green-blue-turquoise scum that makes it impossible to cast a line out without it getting slimed up,” Hammes said. “Please support these rules for my grandchildren and my children.”
The rules are still subject to legislative review. Sen. Kathleen Vinehoult, D-Alama, chairwoman of the Senate agriculture committee, said the rules look substantial enough to warrant a hearing by the end of July.
The EPA also must sign off on the numeric standards.
Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle last year signed bills that limited phosphorus in residential dishwater soap and banned the sale of fertilizer containing phosphorus except for use on first-year lawns and phosphorus-poor soils.