In Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, watershed partners have united in an effort to reduce both point and non-point phosphorus discharges. Find out how this first-of-its-kind program is changing the phosphorus discussion for wastewater treatment plants.


Every wastewater treatment plant manager knows that meeting new limits for phosphorus can be very costly. But managers also know that controlling phosphorus at just a few point sources within the watershed is not the answer.

Introducing Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, and the Oconomowoc Watershed Protection Program (OWPP).

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Using a proactive technique known as adaptive management, the city has partnered with a wide variety of stakeholders throughout the local watershed to educate people about phosphorus pollution, monitor sites throughout the watershed, and work to reduce both point source and non-point source phosphorus discharges.

“We have a very clear goal,” says Tom Steinbach, operations manager at the Oconomowoc wastewater treatment plant and program director of the OWPP. “By the end of the third permit term (15 years), we need to be at .075 mg/L phosphorus at the confluence of the Rock and Oconomowoc rivers.”

To achieve that, the OWPP has reached out and involved various partner organizations. Steinbach says major partners include the Tall Pines Conservancy, the local Clean Water Association and the consulting firm of Ruekert and Mielke. The plan includes more than 30 partners, including local lake associations, nonprofits such as the Ice Age Trail organization, environmental groups, other consulting firms, county land and water management groups, and private land owners. The partners help with funding, volunteers, public awareness and in-kind services.

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“We’ve been able to build a partnership in our watershed with a lot of folks who are concerned with environmental quality, wildlife and water quality,” Steinbach says. “We’re blessed to have this base of folks.”

Here’s how the partnership was formed:

First, facing more stringent phosphorus limits in its upcoming discharge permit, as well as a new stormwater permit, Oconomowoc looked at several options including brick-and-mortar and effluent trading before deciding the adaptive management approach was the best choice for phosphorus compliance. Then, they gained approval from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and received federal funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The plan is one of the first of its kind to be approved and funded in the United States. Finally, starting in 2014, Oconomowoc solicited participation via a letter of invitation to other organizations, held meetings, got organized, and set goals and projects to meet them.

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“Adaptive management was the best approach (for us),” says Steinbach. “It was a brand-new program in Wisconsin — allowing the community to work across the entire watershed to reduce phosphorus loading. We saw real advantages to this approach in preserving our lakes and rivers, which are super important to our economy and quality of life.” The city is basically built around two lakes, and with adaptive management, actual water-quality improvements based on monitoring are required. The program is unlike effluent trading, which relies on documentation of improvements based on computer modeling only.

Steinbach says the message was that although the city was putting real dollars into the program, the effort had to be concerned with water quality across the entire watershed.

“Cities and towns don’t work outside their boundaries very often,” he says, “but we emphasized the benefits of sustaining water quality throughout the larger community — how the approach would benefit all groups both in the short and long term.”

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The group is already working on meaningful projects. Over 20 agricultural related projects are in the works, with some already completed and others scheduled to be implement by this fall. Another involves regular monitoring of water quality at 30 different sites around the watershed. Others focus on education and workshops — coordinating lake management districts as they help lakefront property owners understand best shoreline practices, presenting the benefits of buffer strips and cover crops to farmers and more. The OWPP held its first “Healthy Lakes” conference on June 17 at the community center in Oconomowoc.

A brand-new project currently being organized involves a group of volunteers known as mud chasers, who will go out in storms and look for areas where sediment is flowing off the land and into waterways. “This effort should really give us the information we need to zero in on non-point pollutant sources,” says Steinbach.

The Oconomowoc watershed encompasses some 83,000 acres, and includes 17 lakes and two Class 1 trout streams. Three tributary streams and five lakes in the watershed are considered to be impaired. Oconomowoc holds the only treatment plant discharge permit in the watershed and operates a 4 mgd advanced wastewater treatment facility for the city and surrounding communities and lake properties.

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For more information, contact Tom Steinbach at 262/569-2192 or at Or, go to

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