Landmark Rules Will Reduce Phosphorus
The federal Clean Water Act requires states to curtail how much phosphorus, the main culprit in stinking, green algae blooms, ends up in our waters. Phosphorus is a common component of runoff from farm fields and urban streets as well as discharges from wastewater treatment plants and paper mills. After many years of participation in the development of rules to reduce phosphorus only to have them languish on the backburner, the River Alliance and other conservation organizations threatened to sue the EPA for not holding Wisconsin to its obligations. Lighting this little fire resulted in finalization of a package of companion rules in 2010, which promise to yield long-term improvements in water quality throughout the state.
One rule sets the maximum amount of phosphorus that should be present in a particular river or lake. It will mostly affect cities and industries that dump wastewater into rivers, as they must get a state permit in order to discharge wastewater. A second rule establishes how much phosphorus can be in the discharge water to make sure the waterway doesn’t exceed its set phosphorus limit. The third rule, NR 151, requires reduction of polluted runoff from farms, streets, parking lots and construction sites, all sources of phosphorus to waterways. For the first time, farmers will be required to monitor runoff from their fields and not exceed a specific amount, called the phosphorus index (PI).
The most unique provision in the rule package, one that has many other states watching, is an allowance for “adaptive management” which won the support of cities and farmers alike. It will allow cities to work out deals with other municipalities, or even with farmers, to get the best bang for the buck in phosphorus reduction throughout a waterway. For example, most cities have already made great strides in reducing phosphorus from their wastewater discharge, and meeting the new requirement may have a high cost for a relatively small reduction. There could be greater environmental gains at a lower price if that city instead invested in reducing runoff from upstream farm fields. These will be complicated arrangements, but there is great interest by several cities and counties to give it a try.
The River Alliance will watch for opportunities to work with DNR, cities, farmers and others to launch some successful deals. We will also work to safeguard these new, innovative rules; there have been rumors that the new administration may want to rescind the rule package before it even has a chance to work.
Keeping our Wild Rivers Wild
Over forty years ago, Wisconsin was the first state in the nation to create a Wild Rivers Program, designating the Pike, Popple and Pine Rivers in northeast Wisconsin as Wild Rivers and ensuring they would forever be protected in their free-flowing state. Unfortunately, after these three rivers were designated Wild back in 1965, the program appeared to be forgotten.
In 2004, representatives of the Washburn County Lakes and Rivers Association raised the idea of designating the Totogatic River as the next Wild River. A tributary to the Namekagon River within the St. Croix Wild and Scenic Riverway, the Totogatic flows through five counties in Northwest Wisconsin: Bayfield, Sawyer, Washburn, Douglas and Burnett. The River Alliance joined the quest to help gain the attention of Governor Doyle and move the effort forward. DNR and UW-Extension staff, the local river groups and the River Alliance worked with the surrounding communities to build support for the proposal.
In 2007, community support grew to designate the Brunsweiler River in Ashland County as a Wild River, in recognition of the life and work of long-time conservationist Martin Hanson. Martin lived most of his life along the Brunsweiler, and donated vast amounts of land surrounding the river to the U.S. Forest Service. Sadly, Martin Hanson passed away in October, 2007 (to learn more about the contributions of this remarkable man, click here). Senator Bob Jauch, who represents the area surrounding both the Totogatic and the Brunsweiler Rivers, introduced legislation to designate both rivers as Wild as his first proposals of 2009. Representative Nick Milroy joined Senator Jauch in co-sponsoring the designation of the Totogatic, and Representative Gary Sherman co-sponsored the Brunsweiler designation. After forty-some years, the Totogatic and Brunsweiler were both designated as Wild Rivers in early 2009, with broad, bipartisan support. To learn more about these beautiful rivers, click here.
What Happens in the Great Lakes Stays in the Great Lakes
With 20% of the world's fresh surface water seemingly begging to be taken by thirsty states and nations, the eight states and two Canadian provinces that surround the Great Lakes decided they needed a treaty to regulate the use of this liquid treasure in their back yards.
And so they hammered out the Great Lakes Compact, approved by all eight states in early 2008, then ratified by Congress and signed by President Bush in August of 2008. The Compact essentially forbids removing water from the Great Lakes basin, and carefully regulates water use within the basin.
It's that "careful regulation within the Basin" the River Alliance will be watching with our own careful eye. We were one of several conservation organizations in Wisconsin that led the grassroots and legislative push to get the Compact passed in Wisconsin after years of deliberations. Now some eastern Wisconsin cities -- Waukesha in particular -- are eyeing Lake Michigan water. Using Great Lakes water has implications for rivers: if a city is a so-called "straddling community" (part in, part out of the basin), as Waukesha is, they have to put the water back in the lake -- most likely, via a river that flows there.
Waukesha's "diversion" request will have ripple effects across Wisconsin, and indeed across the Great Lakes basin. Stay tuned to the debate or contact the River Alliance for more information.
Rules to Control Polluted Runoff -- and Money, Too!
With a coalition of over 40 organizations, the River Alliance prompted passage of rules that regulate polluted runoff from farms, construction sites, and parking lots (2002). While the rules are strong and will benefit and improve rivers if followed, the key is sufficient funding for implementation. In particular, farms need comply only if the state offers at least 70% in cost-share to change farm practices to meet the polluted runoff rules. Since passage of the rules, we’ve worked with a coalition of conservation organizations to ensure sufficient funding to provide cost-share to farmers, and were finally successful in October, 2007 with the passage of the 2008-2009 state budget. Making sure sufficient funds are maintained and increased over time will continue to be a River Alliance priority.
Protection of 1,100 miles of Northern Rivers
In concert with Midwest Environmental Advocates and 42 local and state conservation organizations, the River Alliance petitioned the state to designate Northern Wisconsin’s most pristine rivers as Outstanding and Exceptional Resource Waters. Approved in fall, 2006, the new designations afford permanent protection from new sources of point source pollution, and require a higher level of environmental review for development activities affecting these rivers.
Wilderness Shores Agreement
In 1996, River Alliance was party to a 40-year agreement to improve the management of 11 hydropower dams (including removing three) on the Menominee River between Michigan and Wisconsin. The agreement was hailed as a “model for the nation” by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior.
Funding to Help Local River Groups
The River Alliance sought state funding for grants to local river and watershed groups, similar to grants available to lake groups, and in 1999 the state River Grants program was born. Through 2007, the River Alliance has helped direct over $2 million to groups so they can restore river banks, clean up rivers and improve the effectiveness of their organizations.
With the threat of big water bottlers and urban development depleting ground water supplies, the River Alliance, in partnership with several conservation organizations, helped pass Wisconsin’s first law regulating pumping of groundwater in 2004. The law is a crucial first step, and a Groundwater Advisory Committee was appointed to recommend refinements to the law to ensure protection of Wisconsin’s groundwater resources.
Management of Wisconsin’s Rivers
A comprehensive analysis of how state agencies and laws work to protect our rivers, the River Alliance’s 2004 Caught in A Cross Current provides a guide for improvements to how the Department of Natural Resources manages and operates its multiple programs and policies that affect the state’s flowing waters.