A Collaborative Long-Term Project Helps a Northeast Wisconsin Clean-Water Agency Control Phosphorus

Wisconsin farmers, Oneida Nation and other partners join a Green Bay utility in a project to improve water quality.

A Collaborative Long-Term Project Helps a Northeast Wisconsin Clean-Water Agency Control Phosphorus

Ben Young, NEW Water watershed specialist, taking samples.  

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Farmers, the Oneida Nation and many other partners have joined NEW Water in a project to help NEW Water in Green Bay meet new phosphorus limits from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Instead of investing millions in facility upgrades to meet effluent phosphorus limits, NEW Water reached out into the watershed to encourage farmers to reduce their phosphorus discharges by adopting innovative cropping practices.

Adaptive management

NEW Water, the brand of the Green Bay Metropolitan Sewerage District, treats wastewater for 15 municipal customers and serves 236,000 residents in a 285-square-mile area. The utility treats 33 mgd at its Green Bay facility and 8 mgd at a plant in neighboring De Pere.

In 2014 the DNR mandated different requirements that limited NEW Water’s effluent total phosphorus and suspended solids. The utility had five years to determine its path forward before the limits went into effect. NEW Water now has four permit cycles (five years per cycle) to meet phosphorus limits of 0.075 mg/L in two impaired subwatersheds of the lower Fox River.

The NEW Water team evaluated several ideas to choose a phosphorus reduction plan that would be the most cost-effective for ratepayers and involve the community. To that end, NEW Water started a pilot project to evaluate adaptive management as an alternative compliance option offered by the DNR.

Based on the success of the pilot project, the utility launched the NEW Watershed Program to go full scale into watershed work. The plan requires the district to work with rural and urban landowners to help them reduce releases of phosphorus and suspended solids to the impaired waterways. The district funds the program, along with grants and cost share through the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

Forging partnerships

Because they had a good working relationship with Outagamie and Brown counties, two counties in their service area, the utility reached out to the landowners there, which included many farmers. It also included the Oneida Nation, which leases much of its land to farmers.

“The Oneida Nation has a strong environmental program focus, and so they were very motivated to work with us,” says Erin Houghton, watershed programs manager for NEW Water, “The farmers were also willing to work with us; they too are very close to the land.”

NEW Water began working with the farmers and their agronomists, walking the fields with them to understand their resource concerns. “No one knows their fields better than the farmers do, but they may not be looking at their fields through the same conservation lens that we do,” Houghton says.

NEW Water suggested several ideas, such as no-till farming, interseeding, and the use of cover crops. Through these measures to help the district, farmers saw their soil health improve without affecting crop yield. The pilot program was completely voluntary, but the farmers soon discovered the mutual benefits. Thirty-two farmers now take part.

Meanwhile, ratepayers see a direct benefit to water bodies in their backyard. The utility is also sharing its best practices with several other Wisconsin cities.

Award-winning video

To announce the results of the pilot and to launch the next stage, the district held a 30-minute kickoff event in October 2021 to inform the community about the status of the program, its involvement with other organizations, and its plans for moving forward. Because of the pandemic, the meeting was held virtually.

Speakers scheduled included Congressman Mike Gallagher, State Sen. Robert Cowles, utility officials and partners. About 90 people were invited.

To show appreciation to the farmers for their cooperation, NEW Water created a video to thank them. It won the 2021 award for Public Information and Education in the video category from the National Association of Clean Water Agencies.

“The farmers are at the heart of what we do.  We literally could not have done this program without them,” says Houghton. “We found that it is important to plan, execute, verify and follow up with the farmers to get the best results.”   


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