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Water rule has $50M price tag

State wants tighter grip on phosphorus

Oct. 20, 2010

New water quality standards imposed by the Department of Natural Resources could cost the city of Brookfield $50 million in coming years - and bring a hefty increase in utility bills.

The state Natural Resources Board last spring voted to adopt more stringent phosphorus and nitrogen filtering standards, which are required by the Environmental Protection Agency. The measure still requires legislative review.

When phosphorus, a nutrient found in fertilizer and human waste, enters a body of water it spurs blue-green algae growth, which chokes waterways of oxygen and can lead to fish kills.

The DNR anticipates it could cost 163 municipalities statewide a total of $1.13 billion to bring wastewater treatment facilities into compliance with the new standards. It could cost 43 private treatment facilities another $460 million.

Those projections, however, do not account for land-acquisition costs, as well as increased maintenance and operation costs.

Energy-intensive request

Public Works Director Tom Grisa said the new standard could lead to $35 million in capital improvements for the Fox River Pollution Control Center, which already filters about 90 percent of phosphorus from wastewater.

"What they're asking us to do is remove another 90 percent of the remaining 10 percent (of phosphorus)," Grisa said. "We have to filter the water to microscopic levels to remove phosphorus to those levels. It's very energy intensive."

Grisa's $35 million estimate excludes additional operating and maintenance costs, which he said could increase 20 to 50 percent. That additional cost would mean a substantial increase in utility bills in the city, though Grisa did not have specific estimates to provide. Brookfield's 2011 budget proposal outlines $3.1 million in operating costs for the Fox River Pollution Control Center.

And that $35 million would cover additional filtration costs only for western Brookfield. Because the subcontinental divide runs through the city, wastewater from the eastern side of the city flows into the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District.

MMSD officials anticipate upgrades there could cost a half-billion dollars.

"We pay about 3 percent of capital costs for MMSD, so we're looking at spending another $15 million," Grisa said.

That brings projected capital improvement costs for Brookfield to $50 million.

Early indications are that wastewater facilities will have nine to 15 years to make the capital improvements.

What about other sources?

Mayor Steven Ponto penned a letter in April to Jim Baumann, director of the DNR's Bureau of Watershed Management, in which he expressed opposition to the new water quality standards.

"The city has spent tens of millions of dollars on local and regional projects and programs to improve water quality," Ponto stated. "Any program to reduce phosphorous must be comprehensive and fair, with a reduction of phosphorous from all sources in a cost-effective manner."

About 80 percent of phosphorus currently discharged into Wisconsin waterways comes from non-point sources such as over-fertilized yards and farmland, Grisa said, with the remaining 20 percent coming from wastewater treatment facilities.

"The concern about phosphorus in the lakes and streams in Wisconsin is real, and we take those concerns seriously," Grisa said. "But we're perplexed as to why they're going after the 20 percent (of phosphorus discharge) and not the 80 percent."

The Natural Resources Board in June voted in favor of a provision that could provide cost-reducing credits for wastewater treatment facilities that work with local landowners to reduce phosphorus runoff.

A closer look

WHAT: New DNR water quality standards for phosphorus filtration.

IMPACT: Brookfield could see $50 million in capital improvement costs. The DNR anticipates $1.5 billion in upgrades statewide.

NEXT STEP: The DNR rule is subject to legislative review. When - or if - the law goes into effect is up in the air.

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