Column: DNR Has Little Control Over Most Agricultural Runoff
By Rich Boden
The Department of Natural Resources has undertaken a study that is intended to improve the water quality on the Wisconsin River and its tributaries. The study is an effort limit the amount of phosphorus that enters the river and streams. The study is called the Wisconsin River Total Maximum Daily Load Study or TMDL for short. The study started in 2009, and is scheduled to be implemented in 2017.
Phosphorus is a beneficial nutrient for plants. It is necessary for plants to grow, but too much phosphorus in water bodies causes uncontrolled algae growth. These algae blooms are more prevalent in the summer, with long days of sunlight and warm temperatures. In addition to the unsightly appearance and the odor of decaying algae, some types of algae produce toxins that cause illness in both humans and other animals, such as pets. The algae also uses oxygen from the water when it decays, depleting the oxygen needed by fish to survive.
The TMDL study will determine where the phosphorus is coming from, how much can enter the river and streams without causing algae problems, and standards for sources of phosphorus to control or limit the phosphorus to these allowable levels.
Phosphorus comes from two general sources. Point sources are municipalities and business that use water, treat it to clean it up, and send it back to the river and streams. Non-point sources are more diffuse and harder to define. Generally, non-point sources allow phosphorus to enter rivers and streams through runoff from precipitation. This includes storm water collection systems, construction sites with disturbed soils, and agricultural uses.
Point sources are directly controlled through a permit system administered by DNR. Point sources have been removing phosphorus and limiting their discharge since 1992. DNR also controls discharges from construction sites, storm water collection systems, and very large agricultural operations called Combined Animal Feeding Operations or CAFO’s for short. DNR sets standards and requires various practices and controls to be implemented for controlling phosphorus runoff.
DNR has no control over small to medium size agricultural operations or large crop growing operations with no animals. Controlling phosphorus from these sources falls to the Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection, DATCP.
The first phase of the TMDL study found that about 20% of the phosphorus comes from point sources and 80% comes from non-point sources. Of this 80%, the lions share comes from runoff from agricultural fields. The study also found that water quality problems were most common in smaller streams with lower flows, and the large flowages on the Wisconsin River, where phosphorus seems to concentrate. Severe algae blooms routinely occur in the Castle Rock and Petenwell flowages.
Communities and industries cumulatively have already spent millions to reduce the amount of phosphorus discharged to the Wisconsin River and its tributary streams from over the past twenty years. The agricultural community has also made strides to voluntarily implement practices that reduce phosphorus entering the rivers and streams.
The outcome of the TMDL is expected to require communities and industries to spend millions to 10’s of millions more to reduce their portion of the overall phosphorus even further. This will result major increases in sewer service charges to municipal rate payers and significantly higher production costs for industries, which will be passed along to consumers.
Everyone wants clean water. The frustration is that DNR and DATCP have no direct control over a large portion of the Agricultural community and therefore no clear way to accomplish the necessary reduction from the 80% portion of the overall phosphorus coming into the Wisconsin River system from non-point sources.
Compounding this gap in controlling phosphorus is the inconsistent manner in which DNR enforces incidents over which it does have authority. Recently, a farm in Spencer was fined for allowing a million gallons of manure to overflow a storage tank and enter the Eau Pleine River. The overflows occurred periodically over the period of about a year, with the full knowledge of the farmer operating the farm. The farmer was fine $464.10.
Ironically, this spill of a million gallons of manure is approximately equivalent to all the phosphorus released to the Wisconsin River system by point sources, both communities and industries, above the Nekoosa dam in an entire year. Had any municipal or industrial source knowingly dumped this amount of pollutant, heads would roll, huge fines would be levied, and groups would be lining up to sue them, and appropriately so.
Improving water quality through the TMDL study is an admirable effort. The goals for improving water quality and the process to attain them will be set by the TMDL study. Municipal residents and businesses will pay tremendous sums of money to do their part to achieve the standards. Unfortunately, water quality improvements will remain unrealized unless an effective means is found to control phosphorus from non-point sources and the authorities’ that are responsible for controlling non-point sources show the willingness to implement and enforce the TMDL outcomes that apply to the non-point sources.
Rich Boden is the Plover Wastewater System Manager. He can be reached at (715) 345-5259.