The challenge of reining in polluted runoff
By Carol Holden, Information and Education Coordinator, DNR Runoff Management Section
Mention the term "nonpoint source pollution" and people's eyes glaze over. Even the more common term "polluted runoff" is not part of every day terminology. But mention the effects of this type of pollution—a fish kill on a favorite fishing creek or an algae bloom that closes a swimming beach—and people know what you are talking about. Where does it come from, how big is the problem, and what is Wisconsin doing about it?
Wisconsin normally gets about 30 to 34 inches of rain each year. Most of that rain returns to the atmosphere, but about 7 to 13 inches either runs off to surface waters or infiltrates into the ground replenishing our lakes, rivers, streams and aquifers. The land that forms the drainage area is called a watershed. Rain along with melting snow draining lawns, streets, parking lots and farms picks up fertilizer, dirt, oil, pesticides and other pollutants along the way to the receiving waters. And that's a problem and a challenge—arguably the biggest water quality challenge facing Wisconsin and the nation.
DNR water quality staff estimate that about 40 percent of the state’s rivers and streams and about 90 percent of the inland lakes are degraded or threatened by polluted runoff. About 1,400 miles of degraded streams and rivers -- 52 percent of the total -- appear on the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of impaired waters because of nonpoint sources or a blend of nonpoint and point source pollution (water pollution that comes out of a discharge pipe).
Wisconsin is meeting the challenge through a mix of regulation, education, funding, research and monitoring. As early as 1977 the state passed legislation to control polluted runoff from rural and urban sources in designated watersheds. The next year the Priority Watershed and Lake Program was launched and later served as a model for the Clean Water Act amendments of 1987. Twenty-five years later there are 35 completed projects and 51 projects still being implemented.
Wisconsin has had regulations in place since 1984 to control pollution from large livestock operations and direct discharges of manure from any livestock operation to waters of the state. Ten years later urban stormwater regulations were put in place to control erosion from construction sites of 5 acres or more and place controls on stormwater discharges from larger populated cities in Wisconsin.
In 1997 Wisconsin passed sweeping legislation that expanded the state’s approach to controlling polluted runoff. What has been touted as the most comprehensive set of administrative rules addressing polluted runoff in the country became effective in October 2002. The rules establish statewide performance standards and prohibitions for activities that are likely to cause polluted runoff--both agricultural and non-agricultural, including transportation.
For instance, in agricultural areas there are limits on soil erosion from cropland, and requirements that manure be properly applied to fields or stored in a way that minimizes threats to surface or ground water.
On the urban side, there are limits on soil erosion from construction sites where an acre or more of land is disturbed and requirements for managing storm water in new development or re-development areas and new transportation construction. Municipal governments have a responsibility to educate residents on environmentally friendly ways to manage fertilizers and yard and pet waste. Managers of public and private golf courses and other unpaved turf areas over 5 acres who apply fertilizers will need to do so according to soil test results.
The state has so far paid out more than $100 million in cost-share money matched with another $30 to $50 million from farmers, conservation groups, watershed and lake groups and the federal government to control polluted runoff from both urban and rural sources. That money has been used to control erosion from farm fields and construction sites, repair eroded streambanks and shorelines, manage livestock manure to keep it out of waterways and slow down and reduce the pollutants from the stormwater that flows off city streets and parking lots.
Rules and regulations are just part of what’s happening in the state to meet the polluted runoff challenge. The DNR is a partner in Discovery Farms -- real working farms that double as research facilities. One project is determining the effectiveness of vegetative buffers to control polluted runoff.
The University of Wisconsin Extension is an active partner with DNR to target education at landowners, construction companies, municipal governments and others who must act to control polluted runoff. Another partnership venture--Water Action Volunteers--connects about 150 citizen groups to their local stream or river where they monitor the water quality and report their findings on the internet. Hundreds more volunteers take part in river clean-up days. Volunteers stencil storm drains with messages of “Dump No Waste—Drains to Stream” (or River or Lake) informing residents that what goes down those drains ends up in nearby waterbodies without going through a sewage treatment plant.
This year of water is also a year of transition. Moving the runoff management rules from concept to the land will require cooperation among local governments, state agencies including the DNR, the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP), the Department of Commerce and the Department of Transportation, the University of Wisconsin Extension, the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service and private citizens.
County land conservation departments and conservation partners are working with DNR and DATCP to implement and enforce strategies for the agricultural performance standards. The non-agricultural performance standards will be implemented primarily through an already existing permit system.
In this year of water, we celebrate the abundance of water resources that make Wisconsin a special place. We also are keenly aware of the challenge of ensuring that citizens of the state have clean, safe water for drinking, recreation, farming and manufacturing. The Clean Water Act goals of fishable and swimmable waters will not be met without seriously addressing the challenge of reducing polluted runoff. All around Wisconsin people are learning more about polluted runoff and ways that they and their communities can keep it under control such as building a rain garden or keeping leaves and grass clippings out of the streets. People can find out how to help control polluted runoff on the DNR Runoff Management Web page.
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