Phosphorus Allies: Unraveling Wisconsin’s Dairy/Wastewater Connection

In the Dairy State, a new partnership is taking form: Municipalities and dairy farmers are teaming up to control phosphorus discharges. Here's how this novel approach is bringing point and nonpoint sources together.
Phosphorus Allies: Unraveling Wisconsin’s Dairy/Wastewater Connection
The University of Wisconsin's Discovery Farms is focused on the relationship between farms and water quality. Here, farmers get an opportunity to tour a Green Bay wastewater treatment plant.

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Phosphorus — a water-quality nemesis and the target of tighter treatment regulations — might actually be bringing point-source and nonpoint source dischargers together.

That’s especially true in Wisconsin, where a new development is designed to promote cooperation between municipal wastewater treatment plants and dairy farms, especially large operations producing significant amounts of manure.

Amber Radatz, co-director of Discovery Farms, a branch of University of Wisconsin Extension, says her organization is working to get farmers and municipal wastewater utilities on the same page when it comes to controlling phosphorus discharges across specific watersheds. “Our emphasis is on education,” she says, “ways they can work together rather than one against the other.”

Meantime, several communities across the state are exploring and implementing programs designed to reduce phosphorus pollution through cooperation and communication. They’re using phosphorus trading and a new “adaptive management” approach that lets municipalities partner with other groups across an entire watershed to cut phosphorus discharges. The practice was recently approved as a management technique by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Discovery Farms
Based in rural Wisconsin, the UW’s Discovery Farms is a farmer-led research and outreach program focused on the relationship between agriculture and water quality. The program is unique in that it conducts research on privately owned farms throughout Wisconsin. The organization works with the U.S. Geological Survey to gather credible and unbiased water-quality information from monitored sites. Radatz emphasizes the need for education and outreach. Discovery Farms uses bus tours and other informational channels to reach concerned citizens, farmers, the media and politicians.

“We point out similarities and differences between the farming community and the municipality,” she says, while stressing the benefits of phosphorus trading and adaptive management. “In many cases, the issues of phosphorus runoff and soil loss are not well understood.”

In a way, it’s all about manure. “We emphasize ways to make manure easier to work with, and low-disturbance spreading techniques (on fields),” Radatz says.

“On large farms,” she adds, “some of the same separation technologies that have been used at municipal treatment plants can be used in agriculture to reduce phosphorus runoff. We find ourselves focusing on engineering rather than just agricultural science. Farmers seem to be taking an interest.”

In its effort to show the effects of better nutrient management, Discovery Farms conducts monitoring and sampling at some 30 different farms. “We put pen to paper and are committed to making phosphorus trading work,” she says. “That way, municipalities may be able to avoid big phosphorus-removal upgrades at the plant.”

Marathon County
Marathon County, in the center of the state, also hopes to avoid expensive municipal wastewater facilities upgrades. According to Andy Johnson, environmental resources coordinator, that could be accomplished by supporting a lower-cost strategy of phosphorus reductions to surface waters. According to Johnson, the county would also like to develop trading as a way of providing agricultural producers with financial market-based opportunities to better manage soil erosion and manure.

In the village of Marathon City, WQ (water quality) has been identified as the preferred strategy to meet Water Quality Based Effluent Limits under a revised WPDES permit. “In response to this strategy, Marathon County and the local Farm Bureau have committed to a local watershed conversation about the role of agriculture in reducing phosphorus delivery to the streams and rivers,” Johnson says.

“Over the past three months, Marathon City, the Farm Bureau and Marathon County have hosted meetings with agricultural producers to discuss phosphorus runoff concerns in the area and to outline a framework for trading to be successful. At the same time, Marathon County’s Environmental Resources Committee has been discussing the possible value of services and support of administering some programs to facilitate potential phosphorus trading activities.”

Like the experience of Discovery Farms, Johnson says education is critical. 

“Specifically, we must change the thinking by governmental agencies and agricultural producers concerning environmental programs from simply complying with a minimum performance standard (that is unrelated to water quality),” he says. “Instead, we hope to create a market value for behavior and practices that have a correlation to improved water quality. This is big!”

Johnson is encouraged by the reaction of both farmers and municipalities. “The concept of trading makes great sense to all parties,” Johnson says. “The challenge is that this approach to water-quality improvements is new. All parties are learning to trust new partners and new program details. It is moving forward with baby steps. Our hope is that in a few months, all parties will have a sense of the viability of trading in the county.”

Madison Metro
Collaboration is the theme of a four-year pilot project conducted by the Yahara Watershed Improvement Network (Yahara WINS). The study used the adaptive management approach and demonstrated that some 27 cities, towns, villages, agricultural producers, wastewater utilities and other environmental agencies in and around Madison could work together to solve phosphorus pollution problems.

Dave Taylor, director of ecosystem services with the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District, says the pilot study reduced phosphorus pollution by about 20,000 pounds, based on SNAP-plus modeling, and proved the collaborative approach could work.

“The project demonstrated that a diverse group of entities that normally do not work together could join forces to improve water quality in the Yahara watershed,” he says. “All members contributed financially or through in-kind service, and all have a shared interest in water quality.”

Taylor points out that reductions in phosphorus can also decrease the runoff of other pollutants, and the use of vegetative buffer strips along streams aids in wildlife habitat. Cover crops and low-disturbance manure application are other methods advocated to lessen soil erosion and phosphorus release.

Network members have signed an intergovernmental agreement and are embarking on a larger 20-year project, estimated to cost $104 million and reduce phosphorus loadings by 106,000 pounds per year across the entire watershed. The phosphorus reduction goal is driven by requirements in the Rock River Basis TMDL.

Furthermore, Taylor says, with members working together rather than independently, the project will save area residents money.

“It is estimated that the Yahara WINS Watershed Adaptive Management project will result in a $13.5 million dollar annual savings to watershed residents.”

NEW Water
In northeast Wisconsin, just west of Green Bay, a team of water and agricultural specialists has been out in the field, actually meeting with rural land owners in their barns or around kitchen tables. In the discussions, they’re promoting new conservation practices for the farmland, as well as operational changes that will help reduce runoff and decrease nutrient pollution of the Silver Creek watershed.

It’s a pilot project designed to improve the water quality in the watershed, which drains to Duck Creek and eventually into the Bay of Green Bay.

Jeff Smudde, watershed programs manager for the Green Bay Metropolitan Sewerage District, is heading up the effort. “We’re trying to see if the adaptive management approach will work for us,” he says. Known as NEW Water, the team consists of a range of partners, including counties, the Oneida Tribe, UW-Green Bay, Ducks Unlimited, the Nature Conservancy and governmental agencies such as USGS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The teams meet with farmers and walk through the fields, identifying resource concerns and areas for improvement, taking information and developing a plan for each field. In addition, the team takes soil samples and monitors stream quality.

Smudde says about 80 percent of land owners have participated. “We use private agronomists, who have good connections with the land owners. They serve as conversation openers.”

Smudde says recommended practices include planting grass waterways and using buffer strips to control erosion and capture nutrients, as well as operational changes such as seasonal cover crops, no till farming, and residue management.

The NEW Water team has also been successful in securing grants from various sources such as EQIP, NRDA, and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative to help fund the new practices.

“This is not the traditional role of wastewater treatment plants,” says Smudde, “but by working in the landscape we develop partnerships, gain respect and install new practices.”


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