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Runoff debate centers on project costs

By Sean Ryan

Green Bay engineers made a list of 70 city projects to satisfy state runoff rules, then rejected 50 as not worth the money.

“Some of the projects that were initially proposed were infeasible, so to speak,” said Matthew Heckenlaible, Green Bay assistant city engineer. “So we have to go back to the drawing board.”

It’s a back and forth that illustrates a growing debate over the value of clean water.

Municipalities argue there should be a point at which projects that lead to cleaner water are not worth the investment. But environmental groups point out it is possible to improve water quality while not spending too much money.

The state since 2004 has required municipalities pay for projects or support development laws that would reduce runoff 40 percent by 2013. Green Bay’s $40 million list of 70 projects to meet the runoff rules was whittled down to 20 because of cost or engineering problems associated with building storm-water retention ponds, Heckenlaible said.

State law allowed the reduction in projects because they were considered financially impractical. One project, for example, required a lift station to pump water from storm sewers into retention ponds, Heckenlaible said, but, according to state runoff rules, the cost of building lift stations exceeds the value of the project.

Value is at the heart of a state Department of Natural Resources’ revision to the runoff rules that would identify a specific amount that divides practical and impractical expenses.

According to the revision, municipalities annually would spend no more than 37 cents per $1,000 in property value on projects to control storm water. In Green Bay, that would have amounted to $2.2 million in 2009.

Lori Grant, project manager for water policy for the River Alliance of Wisconsin Inc., said a spending cap is a mistake. The DNR should keep its loose definition that gives municipalities flexibility in choosing projects that will achieve the 2013 goal, she said.

Setting an arbitrary dollar limit, as the DNR proposes, is wrong because it discourages cheap alternatives to expensive projects, Grant said.

Ed Huck, executive director of the Wisconsin Alliance of Cities Inc., said most municipalities support the revision. Environmental organizations always will argue for more runoff projects, he said, but the reality is municipalities cannot afford more projects without laying off employees.

“I think the DNR has recognized that,” he said, “and I hope the environmentalists understand that.”

Municipalities are asking for clear limits on how much they must spend and do to satisfy state water rules, said Heckenlaible, chairman of the Northeast Wisconsin Stormwater Consortium, an association of municipalities.

“It’s a fine line,” he said of comparing water quality with project costs. “Basically, the program has to keep the end goal of achieving the permit requirements.”

Heckenlaible said that when the DNR holds public hearings this week on the revisions, he will ask for more details on how the state will decide which projects are too expensive to mandate. The revision would give municipalities an extension of up to 10 years beyond the 2013 deadline if costs make projects unreasonable.

“Each municipality has to keep an open mind,” he said, “that what unfortunately may not be feasible today may be feasible tomorrow.”

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