Of (Sacred) Cows And Phosphorus

It’s time to embrace the fact that point sources are no longer the biggest contributors to nutrients in our waterways – and to start acting accordingly.

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On a canoe trip down a river near my hometown, my brother and I encountered something that to this day still upsets me. On a remote stretch, a farmer had strung electrified fence across the river.

The worst part was not that he had obstructed navigation and we had to worm our way under the fence. No, the worst was that he was treating the river as part of his pasture. Cows could cross back and forth freely, surely at times dumping pies and urine in the water.

I think of this whenever the topic of phosphorus pollution comes up, as it has recently in Wisconsin. There recently was a proposal to rewrite the state’s phosphorus rules so that clean-water plants and industries wouldn’t have to bear the brunt of phosphorus cleanup, while they account for a small fraction (some say perhaps 2 percent) of the phosphorus load to the waterways.

Alternative plan

This proposal would have allowed point-source dischargers to avoid spending millions of dollars to upgrade treatment plants and instead contribute to a fund that would enable counties to fund upstream runoff management practices that would curtail phosphorus. In general, clean-water agencies and businesses supported this, and conservation groups such as Wisconsin Lakes (of which, by way of disclosure, I am a member), opposed it.

In the end, a compromise was reached. The details of it aren’t important in this context. My point here is not to argue the merits of this specific proposal but to suggest that we as a society need to face up to where most phosphorus in our lakes and streams is coming from. It’s from runoff, both urban and rural. Stricter stormwater regulations are making a dent in the urban runoff, but far less is being done out in the country.

Farms — poorly managed ones anyway — are big sources of nutrient pollution. We all know it. But we don’t do much to mitigate it. Why? Well, for one thing, because doing so would be cumbersome and expensive. But another and perhaps bigger reason is that no one wants to beat up on farmers.

I don’t either. Farmers are in a difficult business where investments in runoff prevention likely take a back seat to worrying about whether the next hailstorm will wipe out their crop or a crash in milk or grain prices will threaten their solvency.

A different approach

I don’t hear anyone saying, “Let’s make those nasty polluting farmers pay.” I don’t think we should say that. But I still think if we’re serious about phosphorus, we have to deal effectively with farm runoff. And I think as a practical matter we have to deal with it in the same way we’ve dealt with municipal wastewater — through a massive publicly funded initiative.

It’s fine to offer farmers financial aid for installing best management practices like contour cropping, streamside buffer zones and grass waterways. But even if we pay for those things fully, the farmers still have to maintain them. And such programs for the most part are voluntary.

If we want to clean up phosphorus, we have to do it systematically. And doing it by edict — you shall do A, B and C, Mr. and Mrs. Farmer — will never be popular, nor should it be. So the answer is to fund runoff controls with public dollars, in much the same way the Clean Water Act and state revolving loan funds for years have paid to build and upgrade wastewater treatment plants all across this country.

Economic benefits

How would it work? Each year for, say, the next 10 or 20, a substantial amount of federal and state money would be allocated for rural runoff prevention. An army of newly minted ag-college graduates would go out into the field, work with farmers to design management practices appropriate to their operations and hire contractors (or pay the farmers) to install them.

This work would be done by watershed, based on priority — the most sensitive, valuable or impaired watersheds first. Once the management practices were installed, they would be inspected and maintained, again with state and federal dollars. Of course, all this would create well-paying jobs in the bargain.

Oh, but where will we find the money? Well, first of all, do we value water or not? If keeping our lakes and streams free of phosphorus pollution and noxious algae blooms isn’t a public health and quality of life priority, I don’t know what is. We should be willing to invest in it.

And second, aren’t we better off spending money this way than by requiring clean-water plants to spend tens or hundreds of millions of dollars on phosphorus control systems that quickly bump up against the law of diminishing returns — too little bang for too many bucks?

To cite one example, NEW Water, the clean-water agency serving the Wisconsin city of Green Bay, estimates it would need to invest $200 million to meet its new permit limit for phosphorus. That would buy an awful lot of upstream runoff control measures that would do a great deal more to reduce phosphorus.

Everyone’s job

Yes, clean-water plants and industries should do their reasonable share to control phosphorus. Readers of this magazine, and their consultants, have been enormously creative in finding low-cost phosphorus reduction methods. That should continue, and responsible tightening of effluent phosphorus limits is probably appropriate.

But phosphorus from upstream is the bigger problem, and we need to tackle it head-on.

No one is crazy about the thought of another big government program, which rural runoff management would entail. But let’s ask ourselves: What is the alternative? If anyone can suggest an effective way to curtail nutrient runoff, short of a sweeping, government-funded campaign, I am all ears.

Please share your opinions on this topic. Send me a note to editor@tpomag.com. I promise to respond, and we will publish your comments in a future issue.   


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