Polluted Runoff


There are many types of polluted water affecting rivers. Some dirty water comes from the pipes of factories, sewage treatment plants or cities (known as “point source” pollution). A whole lot comes from farm fields and city streets (known as “non-point” pollution).

The component of polluted water making the biggest problem for rivers is phosphorus and the dirt (or sediment) that carries it. Though phosphorus comes from many places, far and away the most significant source of phosphorus is farming, and it presents the greatest challenge.


Algae-choked water has emerged as one of Wisconsin’s worst water quality problems. Blue-green algae blooms are caused by an excess of nutrients from polluted runoff and wastewater. Rivers and streams suffering algae blooms are not only disgusting to look at, they also can cause serious illness and can harm aquatic plants, animals and fish. Not to mention how bad water is bad for business –waterfront restaurants, boat rental concessions, beer makers, and paper mills all need clean water for their businesses.

Phosphorus Rules

Wisconsin adopted a set of ground-breaking rules in 2010 to address the phosphorus problem, which is largely responsible for causing algal blooms in our rivers, streams and lakes.

The phosphorus rules require farmers, for the first time, to abide by a water quality standard for phosphorus; they never had to before. This means that farmers must limit the amount of phosphorus leaving their fields and feedlots, and entering streams—this is a good thing for both farms and rivers.

Under the phosphorus rules point sources (sewage treatment plants, factories) can get credit for reducing phosphorus on farmland or urban land—rather than “bricks and mortar” upgrades at the plant—likely at a significant savings to them, if they indeed reduce the phosphorus coming into their river from upstream.

Our Job

Successfully implementing the phosphorus rules depends on the participation of the individuals and entities affected by this problem.

The role of the River Alliance of Wisconsin is to:

  • Ensure the Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources shows the way for polluters to use the new regulatory tools available to them under the new phosphorus rules.
  • Engage and inform citizens affected by bad water and help them organize to be effective and powerful advocates for their home rivers to policy makers.
  • Conduct public education campaigns to, well, educate the public: what are the real causes of pollution? Who’s behind it? Who has the power to change it? How can citizen power affect the outcome of what are often contentious and intractable water quality problems?
  • Rally our members to get actively involved and advocate for clean water, but do it sensibly, strategically, civilly and with gusto.

Landmark Rules Will Reduce Phosphorus

After many years of watching the Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources dither and delay, the River Alliance and other conservation organizations in 2009 threatened to sue the Environmental Protection Agency for not holding Wisconsin to its obligations to reduce phosphorus pollution. Lighting this little fire resulted in several new rules, passed in 2010, which promise-term improvements in phosphorus pollution to rivers and lakes.
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. A second rule establishes how much phosphorus can be in water dumped into rivers and lakes from pipes to make sure the waterway doesn’t exceed its set phosphorus limit. A third rule 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, or 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 allows 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 cost 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 attempts to dilute or eliminate them. There’s too much gained to let that happen.

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