February 27, 2020

Tackling Water Quality Woes with a Free-Market Approach

Having been born and raised in Northeast Wisconsin, it doesn’t seem like that long ago when it was ill-advised to swim or eat fish from the Fox River and lower bay of Green Bay. After a long cleanup process, we’re almost ready to put the issue of PCB’s in the past. But as we once again begin enjoying our local waters, new challenges await.

Now plagued by algal blooms that lead to fish kills, PCBs were just one impairment faced by the waterway of my youth. Nutrient pollution doesn’t only impact my backyard as this issue overwhelms hundreds of waterways throughout the state, halting recreation, harming wildlife habitat, and choking out fish and other aquatic organisms.

Tackling phosphorus and nitrate contamination isn’t as easy as it sounds, unfortunately. One source of contamination is point source dischargers, such as municipal wastewater treatment plants, paper mills, and cheese factories.

These point source facilities, which discharge treated wastewater through a pipe, are stringently regulated under the federal Clean Water Act and are often removing up to 95% or more of the pollutants from their discharge before releasing to a waterbody under a permit from the DNR. New phosphorus regulations meant to improve water quality will tighten these regulations even more. This could result in burdensome, multi-million dollar facility upgrades for very minimal improvements.

To reduce the burden on municipal utility ratepayers and small businesses while securing noticeable water quality improvements, we must be more innovative.

Nonpoint sources don’t discharge from a pipe, but rather from runoff that moves over a large land area like family dairy farms, golf courses, and community roadways. When the federal Clean Water Act was designed in 1972, nonpoint sources weren’t included because there’s no good way to measure the true impact from landscape-scale runoff. It remains true today that nonpoint sources are largely unregulated.

Nonpoint source pollution carries phosphorus, nitrogen, heavy metals, oil, and salt to our waterways and contributes to dangerous algal blooms and harms the ecological health of waterbodies. Areas throughout the state face these problems, closing beaches, reducing navigable channels, declining water quality, and diminishing fisheries.

That’s why I’ve authored 2019 Senate Bill 91, titled P3: Wisconsin’s Trading Marketplace to Establish More Pollution Prevention Partnerships, with Representative Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay) and Senator Petrowski (R-Marathon). This legislation creates the nation’s first statewide third-party water quality trading clearinghouse, and will help to once again set Wisconsin apart as a leader in nonpoint source pollution solutions.

The innovative clearinghouse model created in this bill will facilitate water quality trades where a farmer or other nonpoint source can voluntarily enter into an agreement and receive payments from a point source to implement more advanced land and water management practices that improve water quality. While this doesn’t let a point source off the hook, in exchange for paying for these landscape conservation practices, a point source will receive some flexibility in meeting the continually ratcheted-down discharge standards.

The result: a point source avoids costly facility upgrades to prevent municipal utility ratepayer bills and consumer product prices from skyrocketing; a nonpoint source has the financial incentive in today’s uncertain markets to reduce runoff and reap the numerous resulting benefits such as increased yields and decreased fertilization costs, and; the rest of us enjoy the net improvement to water quality.

P3: Wisconsin’s Trading Marketplace has strong bipartisan co-sponsorship and has garnered the support of dozens of groups representing agricultural producers, businesses, local governments, and our natural resources. Senate Bill 91 passed the State Senate and Assembly on unanimous votes and awaits action by the Governor to become law.

P3: Wisconsin’s Trading Marketplace was recommended by the Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality. As a Task Force member, I heard from farmers at all thirteen hearings around the state who want to do more to protect waterways but face financial constraints. Farmers care for the land more than anyone. This legislation ensures that farmers can focus on water quality without impacting their bottom line.

As I await the Governor’s signature and prepare to push for a quick implementation so these Pollution Prevention Partnerships are available during this growing season, I’ll be looking for more solutions like P3 that will improve water quality without increasing the regulatory burden faced by Wisconsin businesses, farmers, and residents.


Column Published in the Press Times, Shawano Leader, Times Press, Wisconsin State Journal, and Wittenberg Enterprise and Birnamwood News.