Wastewater utilities facing tougher state phosphorus standards are offering to contribute to street or agricultural runoff projects in a bid to avoid costly plant upgrades.
The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, the state’s largest wastewater utility, estimates it would have to spend $500 million on new buildings and equipment to meet the proposed standards, said Executive Director Kevin Shafer.
The city of Watertown, which operates a wastewater plant, would need to spend more than $6 million to comply with the rules proposed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said Paul Lange, water systems manager.
Both utility managers said that, because wastewater plants already remove most of the phosphorus from their water, the money is better spent on projects to control runoff from streets and farms.
“We want to improve the environment,” Shafer said, “but we want to make sure we do it in an economically sustainable manner. We don’t want to bankrupt people in the watershed to do it.”
To comply with state and federal laws, the state DNR proposes to decrease the amount of phosphorus allowed in treated water from wastewater plants. The DNR will hold public hearings across the state over the next two weeks and will accept written comments about the proposal until April 30. A final draft of the DNR’s proposal is scheduled to go the state Natural Resources Board in late June.
Jim Baumann, special assistant in the DNR Bureau of Watershed Management, said the state will limit how much utilities must spend on construction to treat phosphorus. The state will consider whether projects are too costly based on how much the projects increase household rates, he said.
“We really need to break it down to what it means to ratepayers,” Baumann said, “and sometimes it doesn’t look that unaffordable.”
State and federal regulators say that in general, consumers should not be forced to spend more than 2 percent of their household income on wastewater bills, Baumann said. So the state is unlikely to require projects that will force rate increases that push bills past that 2 percent threshold, he said.
The MMSD has not calculated how much a $500 million increase in construction spending would affect ratepayers. Watertown estimated it would boost rates 12.5 percent, Lange said. The average Watertown residence spends $422.34 a year on wastewater, he said, and that would rise to $475.13 if it had to increase rates for $6 million in phosphorus projects.
For the nominal decrease in phosphorus that can be achieved with treatment plant projects, the state would get more bang for its buck by targeting phosphorus-laden runoff from other sources, Lange said.
Baumann said phosphorus rules carry a cost, but they also would improve the quality of life for Wisconsin residents. When phosphorus enters rivers and lakes, it feeds algae, resulting in sometimes smelly algae blooms and lower amounts of oxygen in water, which can kill fish.
“We recognize that we need to push the state of the technology to get there,” he said, “and that comes with a pretty hefty cost.”
Shafer said water from MMSD plants accounts for only 20 percent of the phosphorus in the Milwaukee River watershed. The rest comes from runoff from streets, farms and other sources, he said. The MMSD is willing to dedicate money to such projects if it means eliminating spending on the plant projects, he said.
“We support the rule,” Shafer said, “but we also want to make sure that it is implemented in an environmentally and economically smart manner.”