Midwest Environmental Advocates is a nonprofit environmental law center that works for healthy water, air, land and government for this generation and the next. We believe that every citizen has the potential to make a difference.

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Phosphorus Water Quality Standards in Wisconsin

— Toxic algae in Wisconsin's lakes, rivers and streams is preventable. We support and defend science-based water quality standards backed by law and enforcement.

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In July 2012, the U.S. EPA approved Wisconsin's phosphorus program. Midwest Environmental Advocates applauds this important and precedent-setting step towards phosphorus rules and hopes to see more rules just like them across the region. We’d also like the see the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources take a more active role in implementing these “new” rules, which have been on the books – and in effect – since December 2010.

Case Summary

Every summer in Wisconsin, phosphorus and nitrogen pollution spoils Wisconsin rivers and lakes, causing stinky green algae blooms and potentially toxic blue-green algae. This is not an isolated problem - at least 1/3 of Wisconsin’s waters are listed as officially “impaired” due to phosphorus and nitrogen pollution.  Algae is bad news for many reasons. It decreases property values. The smell can cause respiratory problems and headaches. The toxins can seriously injure or even kill pets if ingested and can cause serious skin and respiratory problems to people.

Over a decade ago, the EPA recognized the serious water quality and human health problems associated with phosphorus and nitrogen pollution and directed states to set water quality standards for these pollutants. Wisconsin did not heed EPA’s directive. The DNR, the agency charged with setting water quality regulations, failed to establish rules that would protect Wisconsin citizens and our waters.

Fed up with DNR’s inaction to create phosphorus and nutrient standards, several organizations, including Clean Water Action Council of Northeastern Wisconsin, the Gulf Restoration Network, Milwaukee Riverkeeper, Prairie Rivers Network, River Alliance of Wisconsin, the John Muir Chapter of the Sierra Club, and the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation took action to compel EPA to set those standards for the state of Wisconsin. Represented by Midwest Environmental Advocates and the Environmental Law and Policy Center, the groups sent EPA a notice of their intent to file a federal Clean Water Act lawsuit against the EPA for failing to set those standards.

That notice spurred action. In April 2010, EPA warned that if DNR did not adopt phosphorus standards by the close of 2010, and nitrogen standards by 2013, EPA would begin the process of determining whether to establish standards for the state.  Just two months later, the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board adopted phosphorus water quality standards and set regulations that would establish phosphorus pollution limits in water pollution permits. The criteria and regulations went into effect in December 2010.

New rules and regulations are important steps, but mean nothing if they are not implemented effectively. Midwest Environmental Advocates is monitoring the implementation of the new criteria and the new rules by reviewing all phosphorus limits in water pollution permits issued by the DNR. Currently, DNR is issuing permits that delay phosphorus limits for years and permits that do not take in to account how much phosphorus is already in the receiving and downstream waters. We are concerned with this further delay of important controls that will benefit our shared water resources.