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Republican lawmakers seek to ease  phosphorus regulations

GOP lawmakers want to reopen the state's 2010 phosphorus regulations, but environmental groups oppose the move.

A group of 31 Republican state lawmakers are calling for the federal government to help ease regulations of phosphorus discharge into lakes and streams, saying complying with the standards is too expensive for small municipalities.

The standards for phosphorus discharge, which can cause unnatural weed and algae growth in public waterways, were adopted in 2010 by the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board after eight years of scientific review and input from environmental, agricultural and municipal groups.

The state was among the first in the nation to adopt specific, measurable standards for how much phosphorus could be released into state waters.

Recently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency granted the state a waiver in response to requests from Republican lawmakers that will allow manufacturers and sewage treatment plants to be exempt from the standards for 10 years if they pay fees to help cut pollution that rain carries off farm fields, which is one of the main sources of phosphorus pollution.

In their letter to the state’s congressional delegation, the 31 Republicans state that while the creation of a phosphorus pollution standard was “pragmatic, the real-world application of arbitrary numeric limitations has placed significant strain on communities throughout the state of Wisconsin.”

The letter cites examples of communities where water utility rates would substantially increase if they have to upgrade their wastewater treatment systems. The 973 residents of Benton in Lafayette County could see average residential rates increase from $40 to $75 a month if the village pursues a chemical treatment to reduce phosphorus discharge, they wrote.

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The letter asks for permission to revise the standards, which were set at 0.075 parts per million, the strictest in the country.

“We do not seek to withdraw from the Clean Water Act or ignore our stewardship of the waters in Wisconsin,” the letter states. “We simply seek a way to balance our responsibility with reasonable expectations that we can realistically reach.”

More than 20 environmental groups sent their own letter to the congressional delegation in response to the request, calling it a “new attack on the sensible, science-based rules put forward in 2010” and “unfortunate.”

The letter states the DNR conducted a cost-benefit analysis in 2012 that found the rules created a more than $18 million net economic benefit, including $1 billion in increased property values, $596.7 million in additional recreational economic activity and between $4.8 million and $11.4 million in reduced lake cleanup costs per year.

The DNR also estimated in 2015 that compliance with the regulations could cost businesses and municipalities $7 billion over 20 years.

“Our state cannot afford to undermine the rules put in place to clean up our rivers, lakes, and streams,” the environmental groups wrote. “This will create confusion and uncertainty and delay the already overdue cleanup of our waters.”

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