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Uniform erosion standards not uniformly welcomed

By Dan Shaw

Dane County is in danger of losing authority that for almost 11 years has let it tailor its erosion-control standards to protect resources such as lakes Mendota and Monona and trout streams.

The state’s Joint Finance Committee on May 9 amended Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed 2013-15 budget to include a provision that would put Wisconsin under a uniform standard governing erosion control and the runoff of storm water. Adoption of that proposal, which must be approved by the Assembly and Senate and signed by the governor to take effect, would mean local governments such as Dane County no longer could adopt rules that are at variance with those set by the state.

Advocates of uniform standards say they will make it easier for contractors to do business throughout the state.

But Sue Jones, Dane County watershed management coordinator, said the change would deprive local officials of the means of caring for natural resources in a way that best reflects the wishes of those who most often use those resources. She said Dane County certainly is not unique in Wisconsin in that it has lakes, but its residents are perhaps extraordinary in the priority they put on protection.

“We have more than 22,000 acres of surface water in the county, and that is strongly linked to the quality of life people enjoy,” she said. “Keeping sediments, phosphorous and other nutrients out of those waters is important to residents.”

Advocates of uniform standards, though, say the provision only would put into effect a change that was supposed to have happened already. The responsibility for setting erosion-control and storm-water standards has bounced around among several state agencies in recent years.

In 2011, responsibility went from the Department of Natural Resources to the Department of Safety and Professional Service. The DNR’s authority only extended to drafting a model ordinance it could encourage local governments to adopt, whereas the DSPS was to have the power to enforce a statewide standard.

But before the transfer could really occur, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stepped in and raised doubts about whether the responsibility for erosion and storm-water control should be taken away from a state DNR, said Jim Bertolacini, a wastewater specialist at the Wisconsin DNR. Those doubts led to a proposal to give the responsibility back to the DNR for sites that are larger than an acre or that are smaller and meet certain requirements, he said.

State Rep. Daniel LeMahieu, R-Cascade, the member of the Joint Finance Committee who made the motion to have the transfer put in the 2013-15 budget, said he generally favors giving local officials’ control over their own affairs, but not in a way that might hurt business or the economy.

“There is a balance,” he said, “between local control and controlling locals.”

Jones, though, cast doubt on the idea that construction companies find it difficult to learn about the county’s erosion-control and storm-water ordinance.

Those rules went into effect in 2002 and were the result of a “collaborative process involving hundreds of hours of public comment” from contractors, local officials, farmers and others, according to the county’s website. Jones said the ordinance primarily differs from the state’s rules in its infiltration standards, which control how much land on a project site must remain pervious to water, and in its protections of trout streams and similar resources.

She said she thinks contractors are rarely, if ever, surprised when they learn of the county’s stricter requirements. They are promulgated in a variety of ways, she said, including on the Internet and at her office’s counter.

“Contractors,” she said, “are fairly used to making sure they understand what local requirements there might be in addition to statewide minimums.”

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