Tucked away in Gov. Scott Walker's proposed budget are what some consider to be dramatic rollbacks in regulations that control the amounts of weed-growing phosphorus going into Wisconsin's lakes. The budget would also substantially scale back requirements for cities and villages to control polluted runoff from areas such as parking lots, streets and construction sites.
Critics say the changes would undo years of negotiation and compromise that created workable regulations to reduce the levels of pollutants such as phosphorus. They also charge that the proposed changes would so diminish state clean water protections that the federal Environmental Protection Agency could be forced to step in and implement its own regulations.
Among the regulations targeted in the budget is a new statewide phosphorus rule that was passed by the Natural Resources Board last year. The rule was hailed by supporters, including DNR officials, as one of the most important clean water laws since the federal Clean Water Act. It sets limits on the amount of phosphorus that can enter lakes and streams. Phosphorus is a nutrient found in fertilizers, human waste and soils; when it runs into lakes or streams from farms and from city streets, it can hasten the growth of weeds and toxic blue-green algae.
Walker has been critical of the rule since even before he took office and said implementing it would be too costly for communities.
The rule, when first proposed, did appear costly. The DNR estimated that 160 sewage treatment plants across the state would have to install new treatment systems, with the total cost statewide possibly as high as $1.3 billion. The Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District, for example, estimated it would cost $85 million to add treatment systems.
Chastened by concerns over such costs, the DNR went back to the drawing board and worked with municipalities, treatment plant operators, environmental groups, farmers and others affected by the proposal and negotiated changes. The agency worked with the federal EPA, which is requiring states to put the standards in place, to gain approval of a unique plan that would allow municipalities and treatment plants to work with farmers in a watershed — even providing them cost-share dollars — to reduce the levels of phosphorus coming off their fields.
The rewritten rule said that if, over two permit periods or 10 years, phosphorus levels dropped using the cooperative management plan, treatment plants would not have to add expensive filtering systems.
The rule also gave exemptions to municipalities from meeting treatment deadlines if installing new systems proved too expensive.
Walker's budget would "reform" the phosphorus rule by eliminating the new statewide numeric standard and replacing it with standards no more stringent than neighboring states. Bruce Baker, who heads the DNR's water division, also said the cooperative management portion of the rule would be eliminated.
No neighboring states have phosphorus standards in place, although most are in the process of devising them. But it's unlikely, according to critics, that any of those standards would be as strict as those in Wisconsin's new rule. Nor would those states include the flexibility that the DNR negotiated with the EPA.
Baker said the changes are part of Walker's effort to remove potential impediments to economic growth.
"I think this is intended to simply synchronize what we do with other states," said Baker, "and not put Wisconsin at an economic disadvantage at a time when that is a critical issue."
Baker said the changes proposed in Walker's budget are confusing and admitted that DNR officials are still trying to figure out their implications. But he said the agency's initial reading of the budget language shows that the proposed changes are not a rollback of protections.
"I don't see that," Baker said. "I think it is more a question of how we get to where we want to go. I don't think we're backing off from controlling phosphorus."
Others, however, questioned the wisdom of tying Wisconsin's environmental standards to other states, especially when Wisconsin has a reputation of being more aggressive in protecting its waters than neighbors such as Illinois or Iowa.
"Do you really want to see our lakes and rivers the same quality as Iowa's?" asked State Rep. Brett Hulsey, D-Madison.
Amber Meyer Smith, program director at the environmental group Clean Wisconsin, agreed. "We shouldn't be measuring down to the lowest common denominator," said Smith. "I would argue that we care a lot more about our water standards than Iowa."
Some sewage treatment districts are also questioning why the rule needs to be changed. Dave Taylor, a special project coordinator with the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District, said the district is already participating in a work group that is coordinating efforts to cooperate with area farmers on phosphorus controls. Under the rule, the district can pay farmers to help them install erosion controls and reduce phosphorus pollution, thus lowering overall phosphorus levels in the watershed and avoiding the construction of a new treatment plant.
"If we lose that," Taylor said of the cooperative regulator approach, "you're looking at a brick and mortar addition to the plant."
Shahla Werner, director of Wisconsin's Sierra Club chapter, said that because the phosphorus regulations are required by the EPA, it is possible that the federal agency could step in if the state fails to adequately regulate the pollutant.
"Who do you want regulating phosphorus in Wisconsin?" asked Werner. "The state or the EPA?"
In addition to proposed changes in the phosphorus rule, critics say Walker's budget appears to eliminate rules that require municipalities to reduce urban runoff from places such as parking lots, streets and construction sites by 40 percent by 2013. In response to that requirement, cities such as Madison have encouraged the use of rain gardens, retention basins, and parking lots with permeable surfaces.
Hulsey said the change is particularly misguided because urban runoff is one of the worst contributors to the pollution of lakes such as Mendota and Monona. Almost all of the pollutants running into Lake Monona, for example, come from urban sources.
Smith said the rollback of urban stormwater ordinances would be such a sweeping change that some who have studied the budget think the language was mistakenly included.
Baker, with the DNR, said the agency is still studying the proposed change. "We'll certainly be having some discussions with the Governor's office," he added.