Working as One

Urban-rural partnership uses innovative approach to reduce phosphorus loading to lakes and streams.
Working as One
The Madison Metro Sewerage District team includes (from left) Metrogro manager Mike Northhouse, laboratory manager Rhonda Riedner, environmental specialist Kathy Lake and Director of Ecosystem Services David Taylor.

The lakes and rivers around Wisconsin’s capital city are severely impaired by nutrient pollution and subject to severe summer algae blooms. Rather than addressing the problem individually, the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) and neighboring communities are using an alternate, less costly and more effective approach to remove phosphorus and other excessive nutrients from the Yahara River watershed.

Six cities, eight villages and five towns have joined the Yahara WINs (Watershed Improvement Network), a 20-year program aimed at reducing total phosphorus contributions from wastewater treatment plants, industries, urban stormwater and agriculture across the 540-square-mile watershed. Many other groups are actively involved in the partnership.

At a total cost of $104 million, the plan carries estimated savings of $13.5 million per year versus traditional point-source-centered approaches to phosphorus reduction, which would bring limited water quality benefits in the watershed. Yahara WINs addresses point and nonpoint sources with a goal of reducing total phosphorus releases by 106,000 pounds a year. That would cut phosphorus contributions from 263,000 pounds per year to 157,000 pounds, a level the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has deemed sustainable.

The Yahara WINs initiative is enabled by state law that allows clean-water agencies to meet phosphorus reduction goals through adaptive management — working with landowners upstream to reduce their contributions instead of or in addition to improving local efforts. Some 10 other states have versions of adaptive management programs.

The approach extends across the watershed to reduce the total phosphorus loading from all sources, instead of focusing on small and increasingly expensive reductions from regulated entities such as wastewater treatment plants.


Greg Fries, principal engineer for Madison’s Storm & Sanitary Sewer Section says just like wastewater treatment plants, stormwater’s contribution to the problem is guided by a watershed total maximum daily load approved by the Environmental Protection Agency that is stricter than the regulatory level set by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

“For the city of Madison, the TMDL almost doubled our mandatory reduction,” Fries says. While the regulation required the city to remove 40 percent of the total suspended solids, the TMDL requires approximately 80 percent removal.

That’s a difficult task to accomplish for a municipality, especially with so many areas of a city already developed and there being little or no room for stormwater mitigation strategies such as retention ponds. “When you start looking at the cost per pound of phosphorus or total suspended solids reduction, you’re at least an order of magnitude cheaper to work with others than you would be trying to do this within your municipal boundaries, even if you could do so without condemning land and tearing down existing development to make space for ponds, which frankly you couldn’t and wouldn’t,” Fries says.

Treatment plants

The watershed’s wastewater treatment plants in Madison, Stoughton and Oregon have a series of four five-year discharge permits that include language relating to adaptive management along with specific phosphorus targets.

“The first set of limits we have to meet are the interim effluent phosphorus concentrations,” says Dave Taylor, MMSD director of ecosystem services. “That says we have to be down to 0.6 mg/L by the end of the first permit term, and then 0.5 mg/L by the end of the next permit term. Our Madison plant is already below those limits. Stoughton and Oregon are close to 0.6 and should be able to meet the 0.5 limit in the next 10 years.”

Taylor compared the $104 million Yahara WINs cost to the price of phosphorus reduction at his district’s 42 mgd Nine Springs Wastewater Treatment Plant: “If we looked at a brick-and-mortar addition to reduce just our phosphorus, it would cost more than $100 million. The adaptive management approach costs about $12 million for us. But we’re going after the sum total of phosphorus reductions required from all sources in the watershed, which is about 10 times what we are responsible for.”

Proving the concept

Yahara WINs officially began in April 2016, after a four-year pilot program that proved the concept was workable by reducing phosphorus loads by more than 20,000 pounds. It began by gaining the participation of every city, village and town identified as having a discharge to the watershed (see table).

Yahara WINs participants


In addition to those communities and their clean-water utilities, the Yahara WINs participants include the Clean Lakes Alliance, Dane County, Madison Gas and Electric, the U.S. Geological Survey, Yahara Pride Farms, the Wisconsin DNR Nevin Fish Hatchery, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

Other entities cooperating in the initiative include the Capital Area Regional Planning Commission; Friends of Badfish Creek; River Alliance of Wisconsin; Rock River Coalition; the U.S. EPA; the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection; the Yahara Lakes Association; and Friends of Pheasant Branch.

Taylor says the key to putting together such a large group was building trusting relationships. “That’s part of what the pilot project was all about, reaching out to those municipal entities and the agricultural community,” he says. “We’ve gone beyond the finger-pointing to a mentality that says we’re all in this together — let’s roll up our sleeves and get it done.

From the municipal side, it was important to make the business case for adaptive management and to demonstrate that it’s less expensive than the traditional alternatives.”

He adds that adaptive management isn’t for everyone. “It starts by looking at the watershed. Can you easily identify the players? And how likely is it that they’d be willing to work together? It’s one tool. There are certainly places where water quality trading or plant additions make more sense.”

Trees a major culprit

In Madison, however, it made sense. In one project, the city partnered with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Fund for Lake Michigan, and Yahara WINs to study leaves, their impact on phosphorus levels, and leaf collection methods. While still ongoing, an interim report shows leaves are “a significant source of phosphorus to urban stormwater” and that removing them is one of the few options available.

“Approximately 60 percent of the total phosphorus discharge from the city of Madison to the surrounding waters comes from leaf fall,” says Fries of the study’s findings. “So of the whole year’s worth of phosphorus, you get 60 percent in a little more than a month. Of the remaining roughly 40 percent of phosphorus, about 25 percent comes during bud drops (from trees) in the spring. The rest of the year is basically a phosphorus dessert. If you take actions to control those, for a relatively short amount of time, you can have a significant impact. If you do incredibility aggressive methods to try to keep that out of the streets where it gets washed into the storm sewer, you can impact about 80 percent of that load. As part of the study, we actually used leaf blowers to blow leaves out of the streets and onto the grass.”

Along with leaf blowers, the city also used leaf collection and street cleaning about every seven days from late September through mid-November in one residential location and asked residents to pile their leaves adjacent to the street. They then compared pollution levels to another location where such actions weren’t taken. The research showed significantly lower levels of phosphorus and nitrogen at the site where the leaves were removed.

Obviously, adds Fries, a Public Works Department is not going to go to the extreme of using leaf blowers, but the example shows that other things can be done to achieve the same outcome. “I don’t think this is going to be a problem solved only with Public Works crews,” he says. “It’s going to be solved by the populace. If you roll back the clock 25 years, recycling programs were just beginning. At least in Madison, some people now have bigger recycling bins than garbage bins because they are so diligent about recycling. Would you have predicted that 25 years ago? I think the answer is no, but the culture has completely shifted. Could you get people, over the course of the next generation, to think differently about their leaves? I think that possibility exists.”

One successful tool has been a grant program that focuses primarily on urban reductions. In the first half of 2015 alone, five mini-grants reduced phosphorus loading by 483 pounds per year. Dane County, home to the city of Madison, established plans that reduce loading by more than 3,500 pounds per year. Madison also used some grant money to hire a full-time person for a summer to look at erosion control at construction sites and to check for compliance. While valuable, says Fries, it’s much more difficult to document true phosphorus reductions from such actions because a certain amount of erosion is always going to take place.

Beyond borders

Agriculture is a leading source of phosphorus and is generally regulated less strictly than urban sources. A 2011 study of the Yahara watershed showed that 90 percent of the sediment and 84 percent of the phosphorus entering the areas lakes came from agricultural sources, according to Yahara Pride Farms, one of the participants in the WINs group. “WINs provided funding for Yahara Pride, which worked with participating farmers to use strip tillage, cover crops, low-disturbance manure injection, and other practices that agricultural producers can use to reduce phosphorus loads,” Taylor says.

The experience showed that farmers were willing to do projects on their own. “Yahara Pride quantified how many practices the farmers put on their land in the absence of any cost-sharing, and the number was really high,” Taylor says.

In 2014, for instance, an $80,000 grant to Yahara Pride Farms resulted in:

  • Strip tillage of 52.5 acres, reducing phosphorus by 47 pounds
  • Vertical manure injection on 273 acres, reducing 164 pounds
  • Cover crops on 1,329 acres, reducing 3,786 pounds

In 2015, farmers reduced phosphorus loading by another 2,159 pounds through cost-share programs funded by Yahara WINs, but another 6,483 pounds was removed from the environment through individual projects not covered by cost sharing.

“Agriculture is in a position that we have to be proactive versus reactive, and we’re promoting things that actually work and make a difference,” says Yahara Pride Farms board president Jeff Endres. His group provided cost sharing for 2,500 acres of cover crop, but farmers planted close to 6,000 acres. “That tells me the farmers are very in tune to it and want to make a difference. That says a lot about agriculture. Yahara WINs approached farmers in a very positive way and want to support agriculture. They wouldn’t be where they are today without Yahara Pride Farms, and we wouldn’t be where we are without Yahara WINs.”

In May 2016, the group was honored with the Outstanding Achievement in Resource Stewardship award from the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy for its cost-sharing program. Since 2012, more than 45 farmers have used the program to reduce phosphorus by 15,872 pounds.

Endres says it shows farmers that it’s OK to get out and provide leadership on environmental issues. “The practices we’re using today were invented and perfected by farmers themselves, nobody else did that for them. So if we turn our attention to this and work together, we can probably make more positive impact faster than if we were to step back.”

Doing so also helps identify the financial impacts of different practices. “There are conservation practices that are good to a farmer’s bottom line,” says Endres. He cites reduced tillage as an example. “We’ve proven that there are a number of ways to reduce tillage that protects water quality with less erosion that maintains crop yield. There are other effective conservation practices that may never support the bottom line. It’s important to differentiate those to understand where to target our funds.”

Paying the bills

Nearly half of the Yahara WINs budget is covered by municipalities and government entities based on the amount of phosphorus reduction they are required to make to achieve their total maximum daily load.

“About 45 percent of the phosphorus load comes from those entities, so they’re covering about 45 percent of the cost,” says Dave Taylor, director of ecosystem services for the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District. The rest comes from a combination of cost sharing by agriculture producers and the U.S. Geological Survey, contributions from Dane County, state and federal programs, and funding from groups such as the Clean Lakes Alliance. An executive committee decides how to disburse the funds contributed by municipal entities.

“We’re moving toward the ‘one water’ concept, rather than just focusing on wastewater treatment plant effluent,” says Taylor. “If we’re really going to make meaningful improvements to water quality, we have to think of this more broadly.”


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.