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Wis. officials propose phosphorus limits for waters 

Associated Press Writer

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin farmers would face phosphorus run-off limits for the first time and wastewater treatment plants would have to follow tighter discharge standards on the oxygen-depleting nutrient under a sweeping rules package state environmental officials are poised to adopt.

The rules represent more than a decade’s worth of work by the Department of Natural Resources to curtail phosphorus pollution in state waters. They address a wide range of pollution sources, from farm fields to wastewater plants to developers. The Natural Resources Board, which sets DNR policy, is scheduled to vote on them Wednesday.

Bruce Baker, the head of the DNR’s Water Division, said phosphorus regulation has been one of the agency’s weak points since the early 1980s. Now research has advanced enough to provide a scientific basis for new standards, he said.

“We really have not had the tools necessary to deal with that problem, and it’s a huge problem in Wisconsin,” Baker said.

Biologists believe phosphorus, a chemical commonly found in fertilizer and manure, can cause ugly algae blooms that deplete water oxygen levels, killing aquatic life. The blooms also can produce toxins than can cause a number of ailments, including rashes, headaches and nausea. The DNR considers 172 Wisconsin lakes, rivers and streams “impaired waters” because of phosphorus pollution.

Current DNR rules don’t address phosphorus run-off in the agricultural sector. The agency has imposed a general prohibition on excessive phosphorus discharge from individual wastewater facilities, but hasn’t set any exact standards.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has pushed states for more than 10 years to impose more precise standards, known as numeric limits, on the amount of phosphorus allowed in a water body. Only a few states have done so, however, and last year the EPA imposed standards in Florida. Wisconsin’s DNR has worked on standards for more than a decade, but the EPA wants them in place by the end of 2010.

The new rules would limit phosphorus run-off from farmers’ fields to 6 pounds per acre annually over an eight-year average. Farmers would not be allowed to plow within 5 feet of a stream bank and would have to install equipment such as sump pumps to prevent wastewater from milk houses and feed storage areas from running off.

Under current DNR rules, builders must reduce erosion on work sites by 80 percent. The new package would change that standard to limit erosion losses to 5 tons per acre and reduce the amount of curb-and-gutter developers can install on new roads without run-off prevention techniques from a mile and a half to 220 feet.

The rules would impose numeric phosphorus limits in water bodies. Rivers, for example, could contain no more than 100 micrograms of phosphorus per liter.

“Our goal is to make our beaches swimmable, protect public health, improve the health of our fisheries and restore the scenic beauty of our lakes,” said DNR Secretary Matt Frank.

Farmers would not have to comply with any of the rules unless the DNR covers 70 percent of their costs to comply. That would work out to about $9.3 million from the state and $4 million from farmers just to comply with the wastewater regulations, according to DNR estimates.

The Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation represents 43,000 farm families. Spokesman Paul Zimmerman said the organization supports the proposal. The DNR listened to farmer’s suggestions to make the proposal more workable and opting out without cost-sharing makes the plan easier to swallow, he said.

“Farmers will be able to meet that,” he said.

Wisconsin Builders Association General Counsel Pat Stevens said it’s unclear how the rules will affect the construction industry, but they likely will drive up development costs. He didn’t have any projections.

Wastewater plant operators, meanwhile, initially cringed at costs they might face to comply with the numeric standards. The DNR estimates up to 163 municipal plants may need new filtration systems that could run a total of $300 million to $1.13 billion. The Municipal Environmental Group Wastewater Division, a group of 95 plants in small-to-mid-size cities, issued estimates in March saying the costs actually could range from $1.4 billion to $4.3 billion.

But the DNR has softened the compliance schedule to allow plants to meet requirements over a period of years and set up a program that allows plants and farmers to share the costs of reaching numeric limits. Federal aid may be available for both farmers and plants, Baker added.

Paul Kent, an attorney for the Municipal Environmental Group Wastewater Division,said the group is pleased to see those changes and see farms regulated.

“While we are never anxious for more regulations, this rule at least has the potential to offer enough options to allow for (comprehensive) watershed approaches. As a result, at this point, we’re not going to oppose the rule,” Kent said.

Shahla Werner, director of the Sierra Club’s John Muir chapter in Madison, said the package isn’t perfect.

“It is something I think we can live with,” she said. “This is a huge step in the right direction, even though there are compromises.”

The rules would be subject to legislative review. DNR officials hope to get the package to lawmakers by mid-July if the board approves them this week.

The EPA also would have to approve the numeric limits portion of the proposal.

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