Pilot project will reduce phosphorous runoff, save money through cooperative efforts

Toxic and pungent algae-blooms dampen enjoyment of Madison’s waterways. Residents accept closed beaches and clogged shores as part of the isthmus and lakeside experience. But a new project hopes to make big improvements in the region’s water system.

In a move unique to Wisconsin, Dane County recently began a pilot project to reduce the amount of algae-causing phosphorus entering its waterways. The project, driven by Wisconsin’s new phosphorus rules, uses a more flexible and less expensive approach against phosphorus pollution than any other in the nation.

“This has huge implications state-wide and nationally as well,” said Dave Taylor director of special projects for the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD). “If we’re successful in bringing this project forward, it will serve as a model for everyone else in the state and a model nationally.”

The MMSD is heading the four-year pilot project with Dane County and 30 other municipalities, environmental groups and others in the Yahara Watershed – a partnership referred to as Yahara WINs (Yahara Watershed Improvement Network).

MMSD, area municipalities and farms will work together and pool their resources, also using funds from the federal and state government, and apply cost-effective measures to prevent phosphorus runoff – a process called adaptive management.

Many of these efforts will focus on agriculture. They plan to try terraces, sediment containment structures, and different tillage practices, for example. Even ideas as straightforward as building roofs over cow yards will be considered, said Waunakee farmer Jeff Endres.

Phosphorus enters the water from wastewater plants and from farm and street runoff. These various sources posed a problem for regulators because runoff is so difficult to control.  Traditional methods of filtering out phosphorus require buying expensive technology that isn’t as effective as the practices the pilot project will use.

Before 2010, the state’s phosphorus rules treated each phosphorus source independently. The new rules, approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and adopted by the Natural Resources Board, allow the adaptive management approach with sources expected to work together, reducing levels of phosphorus to meet EPA regulations.

“It is a community approach. That’s probably the biggest thing that we have so many different entities from the urban and the rural side of it working together,” said County Conservationist Patrick Sutter.

Some unconventional practices to minimize runoff came directly from farm groups, said Sutter.

Since 75 percent of the phosphorus in Lake Mendota comes from farm runoff, these practices should make quite a difference, said Clean Wisconsin’s Water Director Melissa Malott. She predicts that after they start working Madison’s waterways will be clearer of weeds and won’t have any algae blooms.

The question, however, remains how quickly the lakes will respond. Sutter cautions that excessive rainfall could delay the effects by 15 or 20 years, since there is phosphorus stored in wetlands and streams that could get washed down.

The pilot project will test different practices and measure their effectiveness around Sixmile Creek sub-watershed to the north of Lake Mendota. By targeting the area above Madison, the pilot project should benefit Lake Mendota and everything below, Sutter said, because of how phosphorus spreads through the watershed.

The pilot will lead to a full-scale project covering the rest of the Yahara watershed starting in 2016, according to Taylor. Including the four-year pilot, Dane County has up to 15 years to meet water quality objectives with adaptive management strategies.

And depending on Wisconsin’s success, which may begin with this project in Dane County, other states can use adaptive management strategies to reduce runoff.

Part of what makes adaptive management so groundbreaking is the money it is projected to save. While a traditional approach to phosphorus pollution would require spending around $200 million, the full project is projected to cost around $58 million, explained Malott.

Instead of installing expensive technologies that use a lot of energy to filter the phosphorus out, facilities like waste treatment plants can work with farmers and put in a couple acres of grassland, for example.

The pilot project itself costs $3 million, which will come from three main sources: a federal grant for $1.3 million, contributions from participating municipalities and contributions from Dane County among other groups.

Some of these funds will serve as incentives for farmers to change harmful practices, an aspect of the project that Waunakee farmer Endres appreciates, though he doesn’t fall under the pilot area. He said it’s common for farmers to be called upon for help and then left holding the bill.

“Seeing that the funds will be collected by all the other contributors and dispersed back out to the farm community, it’s something very different,” Endres said.“The farmers should actually be proud of the fact that they have this track record and that they can still help out. And the rest of the community will help contribute.”

The project’s success depends on how well participants can work together, and Malott remains optimistic.

“Everyone’s already getting along and figuring this out,” said Malott. “It’s going to be a complicated process, but everyone’s at the table.”