MADISON — Members of the Natural Resources Board on Wednesday urged Gov. Scott Walker to reconsider his plan to roll back rules that protect Wisconsin lakes and streams from phosphorus pollution.
The board, which sets policy for the state Department of Natural Resources, approved the regulation last year. The rule sets limits on levels of phosphorus, a nutrient that gets into water from fertilizer and human waste and spurs the growth of weeds and toxic blue-green algae. At the time it was passed, the regulation was described as one of the most important water protection laws in Wisconsin since the federal Clean Water Act.
Matt Moroney, deputy secretary of the DNR, told the board Wednesday that Walker intends to rewrite the rule and that agency staffers are working with the governor’s office on the proposed changes.
According to the initial proposal, the numeric standard for phosphorus in the rule passed last year would be replaced with a so-called “narrative” standard, which is not a number but instead a description of water quality. Walker also proposes that phosphorus regulations could be no more strict than standards set by neighboring states.
Moroney said Walker’s goal is to ease any financial burden on local governments and on businesses faced with paying more for increased water treatment.
“I think the governor is sensitive to municipalities and is looking for a way not to force additional expenses on them,” Moroney said.
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But Christine Thomas, a board member and dean of the resource management program at UW-Stevens Point, said Walker should visit the Petenwell Flowage in central Wisconsin in August before making any changes to the phosphorus rule. Weeds so choke parts of the lake that it is “appalling,” Thomas said.
Jonathon Ela, chair of the Natural Resources Board, also said the growth of weeds on the flowage becomes an economic issue because boat traffic is nearly eliminated in some bays, and marinas suffer financially as a result.
Ela warned that the new standard passed by the board last year was the result of years of negotiation and compromise and included ways for municipalities to cooperate with farmers and others to reduce the cost of controlling phosphorus. He said any weakening of the standard could result in the federal Environmental Protection Agency stepping in and enforcing its own regulations in the state.
Others, including Todd Ambs, the former head of the DNR’s water division, said eliminating the new standard could put the state in violation of the federal Clean Water Act.
Moroney said the EPA recently circulated a memorandum telling states that they must adopt a numeric phosphorus standard. He said that the memo is likely to influence Walker’s rewrite of the rule, “but I don’t think there has been any resolution yet.“