Innovative approaches to managing phosphorus at the watershed level: Wisconsin’s proposed Multi-Discharger Variance for phosphorus


As discussed in the two previous installments on this topic—which covered Wisconsin’s Watershed Adaptive Management Option for phosphorus and Water Quality Trading in Wisconsin—Wisconsin stands out among its peers for its several innovative approaches for watershed-level management of excess phosphorus and its negative impacts on watershed health and water quality. Ultimately, clean water impacts our economic well-being as a state and our quality of life. We all want clean, safe, healthy water, and we now have on the books several creative ways to help make that a reality.

The latest addition to the list of creative approaches in our arsenal is the so-called multi-discharger statewide variance, which Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources has spent the last two years shaping and which is now under consideration for final approval by the U.S. EPA.

What is a Multi-Discharger Variance (MDV) for Phosphorus?

 Born as a result of a bill known as 2013 Wisconsin Act 378, the MDV was intended to provide another compliance option for Wisconsin point-source dischargers of phosphorus, particularly those for whom traditional compliance (via adding new technology at treatment facilities to remove more phosphorus) would be prohibitively expensive. Details on the framework for creation of an MDV option in Wisconsin are detailed in Section 283.16 of Wisconsin’s Statutes.

To sum it up briefly here, the MDV gives eligible regulated point-source phosphorus dischargers an option to push back the requirement to comply with Wisconsin’s phosphorus discharge limits by up to 20 years as a cost-saving measure. But it does not let them completely off the hook: during those intervening years, dischargers approved for the MDV must still make some measurable progress on reducing the amount of phosphorus they discharge at the end of their pipe, and they must fund or implement projects in their watershed that will lead to additional offsetting phosphorus reductions.

 Those watershed efforts can target non-point sources of phosphorus—most likely farmers—which likely means that more cost-effective phosphorus reductions will result. The WDNR’s proposed MDV program lays out several options for point sources to choose from to meet the watershed phosphorus reduction portion of the MDV’s requirements: the point-source discharger may take on a watershed project itself, it may work with the county Land & Water Conservation Departments operating in its watershed, or it may engage other third parties in those efforts, subject to WDNR’s approval.

What might the existence of the MDV mean for Water Quality Trading and the Watershed Adaptive Management Option?

The key is for the MDV to provide another option for eligible point-source dischargers to consider without undermining the Watershed Adaptive Management Option or Water Quality Trading as alternative options. Crafting the program where it strikes that delicate balance is something the WDNR worked hard to do, and it is likely something the EPA is evaluating closely. Environmental organizations such as Clean Wisconsin (where, in full disclosure, the author is employed) have encouraged WDNR throughout the process to ensure the program serves as a complement to the existing array of innovative approaches on the books.

Given the variety of circumstances facing the wide array of different kinds of phosphorus dischargers across the state—from municipal wastewater treatment plants to cheese factories to paper mills and more—the hope is that regulated entities will evaluate their full suite of options and choose the one that makes the most sense for them in the long run. Choosing the MDV does have the potential to push back to a later date full compliance with applicable phosphorus reductions, but it does not allow a point source to escape compliance forever. For this reason and others, eligible point sources may find themselves weighing the flexibility and cost-effectiveness of the Watershed Adaptive Management Option or Water Quality Trading with their finality but potentially higher up-front cost against the MDV with its potentially lower short-term costs but likely significant costs on the back end, since full compliance always remains an unavoidable eventual requirement.  There may be circumstances where the MDV does not actually promise lower costs even in the short term. For these reasons, each case will be unique and the regulated entity and the WDNR will need to work together to fashion the best, most workable approach in each case.

What’s next for the MDV?

 The WDNR expects to hear back from EPA any time now (June, 2016). Provided that EPA’s response is positive, the MDV for phosphorus can begin to be implemented immediately. That means that as WDNR processes discharge permit renewals for existing point-source dischargers of phosphorus, those entities will be able to consider the MDV alongside traditional compliance and the Watershed Adaptive Management Option or Water Quality Trading as alternative compliance options.

Where does this all leave us? 

As point sources in the Greater Milwaukee Watersheds reach the point of having to consider their options for renewal discharge permits, Sweet Water and its partners hope to be able to add value by assisting in the comparison of the various options that are now available and by helping to convene potential partners across the watersheds who could benefit mutually by working together on Watershed Adaptive Management Option, Water Quality Trading, or the MDV.

As we have noted before, for any watershed project to succeed, it requires strong partnerships between communities, private-sector regulated entities, and stakeholders invested in cleaning up their waters. Sweet Water and its nonprofit partners have been working to build these kinds of partnerships in the Greater Milwaukee watersheds, including the Menomonee River, Kinnickinnic River, Milwaukee River, and Root River, and we hope to help those who wish to explore the full array of innovative watershed-scale phosphorus management options now available in Wisconsin.


This concludes our three-part series highlighting the existence of three innovative approaches to managing phosphorus at the watershed level available now (or likely very soon) in Wisconsin. As significant developments happen in Southeastern Wisconsin or elsewhere around the state on this front, we will be sure to bring them to you here and/or through Sweet Water’s annual Clean Rivers, Clean Lake Conference and other forums.