Adaptive Management -- Wisconsin’s Innovative Approach to Phosphorus Discharges

Posted on February 12, 2013 by Linda Bochert

In December 2010, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) put into place new rules to control phosphorus discharges.  Adaptive management is one of  four compliance options allowed under these new rules.  But what is “adaptive management”?

WDNR developed adaptive management to provide permittees with a less expensive, more flexible compliance option, and describes adaptive management this way:

 “a phosphorus compliance option that allows point and nonpoint sources (e.g., agricultural producers, storm water utilities, developers) to work together to improve water quality in those waters not meeting phosphorus water quality standards.  This option recognizes that the excess phosphorus accumulating in our lakes and rivers comes from a variety of sources, and that reductions in both point and nonpoint sources are frequently needed to achieve water quality goals.  By working in their watershed with landowners, municipalities, and counties to target sources of phosphorus runoff, point sources can minimize their overall investment while helping achieve compliance with water quality-based criteria and improve water quality.”

To be “eligible” to use adaptive management, a permittee must discharge to a water body that is exceeding its in-stream phosphorus criteria on which at least 50% of the total phosphorus loading comes from nonpoint sources, and would have to implement filtration or an equivalent technology to meet the new phosphorus limit.  Unlike water quality trading, which measures compliance with an end-of-pipe effluent limitation, the adaptive management permittee must meet an in-stream concentration of acceptable phosphorus.  Under adaptive management, the phosphorus in the effluent may be reduced over a longer period of time – in some instances, up to several WPDES Permit cycles – as compared to water quality trading which requires the credits to be generated before the permit is issued.  The job of identifying and finding partners falls to the permittee; WDNR does not intend to act as a broker to identify and bring prospective partners together.

An innovative alternative that seeks a watershed approach to control phosphorus, encourages nontraditional partnerships and cooperation between point and nonpoint sources, tries to provide flexibility in timing and doesn’t rely on the traditional and expensive construction of new treatment facilities – how’s it going so far?

For much of industry, forging such partnerships with other regulated and unregulated sources is unfamiliar territory and relying on those other entities to fulfill their commitments when the industrial permittee is the one that must demonstrate compliance is too uncertain to be acceptable.  Many municipalities are more comfortable with partnerships of this sort, but the early experience of one environmentally proactive municipality has demonstrated the enormous amount of time and effort required to take on the role of “champion”, educate and engage other partners in the watershed.  Agricultural interests are initially skeptical – concerned with the potential of taking land out of production.  The environmental advocacy community reaction is mixed.  One ENGO is actively working with the municipality to educate and engage partners and has written a guidance document on how to do adaptive management.  Another ENGO has filed suit against WDNR over WPDES Permits issued with adaptive management compliance schedules in them, reinforcing the reluctance of industrial and municipal permittees to commit to this approach.  And after approving WDNR’s rules in the first instance, EPA now takes such a strict reading of the rules that the intended flexibility may become illusory.

WDNR management is listening to all of this and seeking ways to adjust the implementation of “adaptive management” to respond to these very practical concerns.  No good deed goes unpunished. 

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