Cities, farms, foul water

(First published in the February 14, 2019 issue of City Pages)

With an $80 million wastewater treatment project on the horizon, Wausau is suing the DNR over its strict new phosphorus pollution rules. Meanwhile, little has been done to regulate the main culprit: agriculture


When Pat Sosha changed to a no-till farming method, phosphorus wasn’t exactly on his mind.

Like any business, Sosha was looking to cut expenses on his calf and crop farm between Athens and Edgar, in the town of Rietbrock. Sosha’s 340-acre farm saves at least $40 per acre using the no-till method just from the fewer times he has to pass machinery over his farm fields. Not to mention the tilling equipment he could sell.

The cover crops that are part of the no-till method help prevent the erosion of soil which, to a farmer, is literally their livelihood. Soil eroding is like parts of the factory washing away. “We had some washouts some years,” Sosha says. “I thought, ‘boy there’s some good soil going down the crick.’”

And the no-till method reduces runoff that adds phosphorus to water ways and can lead to huge algae blooms and even fish kills. Sosha might not have been thinking of phosphorus runoff when he changed farming methods in 2014-15. But Marathon County officials are.

One of the 12 objectives in the county’s strategic plan is to reduce phosphorus runoff into Fenwood Creek, located in the western part of the county where there are many farms, including several medium-sized operations under the county’s jurisdiction (the state regulates large farms). The county is considering new restrictions on winter manure spreading, as well as encouraging farm methods that decrease runoff. No-till farming—which disrupts the soil less with simple plantings and cover crops—appears to save costs as well as reducing runoff that can add phosphorus to water ways.

Meanwhile, municipalities in the same Wisconsin River basin are seeing a much more real crackdown on water pollution: actual regulations on phosphorus emissions in the form of wastewater rules that will cost them millions.

Wausau, for example, is about to build a new $80 million wastewater treatment facility, and nearly one-third of that cost will be dedicated to  phosphorus management, including new guidelines by the DNR. But the city’s not going down without a fight. It’s suing the state DNR over these stricter limits for phosphorus emissions, in a lawsuit filed in January. Wausau’s not the only one. Three villages in Sauk County (downstream on the Wisconsin River) did the same last month.

The unspoken, main contention: Municipalities might spend millions reducing urban phosphorus emissions, but that won’t solve the problem unless agricultural runoff is also drastically curbed.

The issue is so acute and costly that smaller municipalities around Wausau, such as Marathon City and Edgar, are considering wastewater pipelines to Wausau some 20–30 miles away rather than upgrading their own treatment facilities.

Additional phosphorus from municipal discharges and farm runoff adds nutrients into water systems, which choke waterways. It’s one of America’s most widespread, costly and challenging environmental problems, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. It pollutes lakes and rivers by producing toxins and bacteria growth that can make humans sick and deplete water oxygen levels.

Major fish kills in the Big Eau Pleine in 2009 and a more minor one in 2013 create shocking images of the problem. Seeing shorelines full of dead fish has a chilling effect even on those who wouldn’t consider themselves environmentalists.

But there’s a win-win scenario, one soil scientist says. Changing farming methods can not only be good for the environment; it can save money for farmers.

Spreading the word


“It’s coming out of thousands of acres of cropland,” Daigle says of the phosphorus pollution. “For the Big Eau Pleine and Rib River, it’s a death by 1,000 cuts.”

Right now, Marathon County is responsible for licensing dairy farms with 500–1,000 animal units (300 full grown cows equal about 500 units). There isn’t really a mechanism for monitoring herd size, and the licensing is sort of self-reported.

There are just under 500 dairy farms in Marathon County, and roughly 61,000 cows. With consolidation, the numbers of cows have stayed the same while the number of farms have dropped from 2,000 in the early 1990s, says Marathon County Land and Water Program Director Paul Daigle — meaning there are now more large scale dairy farms in general. The county sends newsletters to all its farmers and does its best to educate them.

Only 11 farms fall into that county licensing category. For those farms, the county is proposing manure restrictions beyond what is required by the DNR—for example, limited manure spreading in the winter. Spreading manure in the winter on frozen ground can add 250-360% more phosphorus to the water table than spreading in other months, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Monitoring the area around Fenwood Creek, one of several tributaries in western Marathon County that lead to the Big Eau Pleine watershed, is like a pilot program. Two thirds of the land in that area, the 26,000 acres that make up the BEP tributary, is farmland, Daigle says. The area also contains plenty of other streams and rivers that flow into the BEP.

“It’s coming out of thousands of acres of cropland,” Daigle says of the phosphorus pollution. “For the Big Eau Pleine and Rib River, it’s a death by 1,000 cuts.”

The DNR has focused its water quality monitoring on Fenwood Creek so county officials have this as a baseline from which to work. Right now, the goal is to reduce runoff in the Fenwood Creek area by 20% within five years. Voluntary compliance has helped, but it’s not enough. The phosphorus concentrations in Fenwood Creek are listed at 129 units/Liter — healthy levels are 75 and below, according to data from the Marathon County Planning and Zoning Department. If county efforts to reduce phosphorus runoff work there, they can work everywhere.

The new plan is to get farmers to store manure in the winter months instead of spreading it on frozen fields. That usually means farms need manure storage, but Daigle says all but one farm has the storage capacity right now, and the county would work with the other farmer for grants.

There are other practices that can help, Marathon County farmers learned recently.

Farm methods, urban costs


About $8 million of Wausau’s wastewater treatment upgrade is to add filters that can handle new DNR standards, says Wausau Public Works Director Eric Lindman.

Ray Archuleta stood in front of a group of about 100 Marathon County farmers Feb. 5. Archuleta, a retired soil scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Conservation Service and is now a soil consultant based out of Alabama. He says the way we’ve been farming is wrong. “My job is to teach them that the whole foundation that agriculture is built on is wrong,” Archuleta says. “To force, manipulate, splice, and change nature to force yields.”

Step one is getting farmers to understand that soil is alive, and build farming techniques based on that idea. That means being a lot more careful about how manure is spread. Using cover crops, for example, keep nutrients in the soil instead of running off into the nearest stream. “The majority of the agriculture world doesn’t know how this works,” Archuleta says.

This approach not only benefits the environment but also could save money. Farmers can spread less manure, possibly sell excess composted manure to other farms, and reduce the use of artificial fertilizers (nitrogen supplements). Excess manure can also be used in a bioreactor to produce energy. “They’re losing a lot of money because they don’t understand the whole system approach,” Archuleta says.

Even switching to a no-till method of farming right out of the gate can save 33-66% of the manure they would spread, and no longer need to buy chemical nitrogen, Archuleta says.

It’s a different story for urban wastewater. Wausau expects in 2020 to start building a new $80 million wastewater treatment facility. Phosphorus treatment is about $28 million of that cost, with about $8 million specifically to add filters that can handle new DNR standards under its most recent permit, says Wausau Public Works Director Eric Lindman.

Another $20 million is treatment to convert human waste into a Class A solid instead of B.

Right now, Class B can be spread on farm fields only under very specific circumstances, with DNR approval—they still contain toxins and metals so can only be used minimally, Lindman says. Class A solids could be sold as fertilizer, bringing in money. Plus, the fields the can take Class B solids are starting to become scarce.

“Other municipalities do it,” Lindman says about converting waste to Class A fertilizer. “It’s a valuable resource.”

Wausau is suing the DNR over a particular number its latest permit, issued in December. Under the new permit’s guidelines, the city will be required to reduce its phosphorus discharge levels by 90%. But new Total Daily Maximum Loads the DNR is proposing are being reviewed by the EPA, the lawsuit argues; those limits could result in a 70% reduction, Lindman says. Meeting that extra restrictive 90% reduction will cost about $100,000 extra — maybe small in the grand scheme of an $80 million project, Lindman says, but still an added and possibly unneeded expense on an already expensive project.

Those DNR limits on phosphorus also don’t leave a lot of wiggle room for error. Wausau’s lawsuit, which says the limits imposed by the DNR uses an overly restrictive formula that’s likely to change, isn’t the first to do so. The villages of Rock Springs, North Freedom and La Vallein Sauk County filed suits on Jan. 16 for the same reason, according to the Reedsville News Republic. The suits sound identical to Wausau’s.

The phosphorus limits are a burden on already struggling municipalities, when farm runoff seems to be such a more significant contributor to phosphorus pollution, Lindman says.

And if an $80 million wastewater facility is a burden on a city the size of Wausau, imagine its impact on villages like Edgar or Marathon.

Those two municipalities in fact are considering teaming up with Wausau instead of upgrading their own systems — connecting a pipe all the way to Wausau to have their waste treated at the new facility. But even that comes with a price tag — $22 million. It is, after all, about 20 miles of pipe.

That pipeline option will depend on how much funding the two municipalities can get from state and federal sources, says Marathon Administrator Andy Kurtz. Marathon’s wastewater treatment facility needs upgrading anyway, he says, but meeting the DNR’s new phosphorus rules would add $2.5 million to the price tag. That’s for a filter that would remove an additional 800 pounds of phosphorus per year—less than 1% of the phosphorus discharged to the Big Rib River.

Another option Marathon City is considering: a phosphorus trading program that would allow the municipality to help surrounding farmers produce less phosphorus in the first place—programs to encourage less erosion and better manure spreading practices. “I could spend $100,000 and remove 2,500 pounds (of phosphorus runoff every year),” Kurtz says. “It’s economically viable compared to spending $2.5 million to remove 800 pounds.”


Major fish kills in the Big Eau Pleine in 2009 and a more minor one in 2013 create shocking images of the problem

Marathon County’s Environmental Resources Committee last week was supposed to have learned more about the possibility of new measures aimed at reducing phosphorus, such as limiting winter spreading. Committee members, including chair Jacob Langenhahn, expressed concern about putting further burdens on already struggling dairy farmers. A fair consideration, considering the plummeting price of milk and the continual loss of dairy farmers in Marathon County, where only a quarter of the dairy farms that existed in the county 30 years ago still exist today.

It’s a balance the committee will have to consider as it hopes to avoid another fish kill like the one in 2009 on the Big Eau Pleine. But hopefully other farmers will be able to see the results Pat Sosha did.