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Federal phosphorous rules come with steep costs in Brookfield

Worst-case option has $50M price tag

June 20, 2012

The Environmental Protection Agency is thinking green, but cities like Brookfield are seeing red over stringent standards for phosphorous levels in groundwater.

In 2011, shortly after the standards were adopted in Wisconsin, Scott Walker took office as governor and attempted to roll back some of the revised groundwater standards by insisting there was tremendous burden being placed on local governments.

Brookfield would serve as a prime example, as the city is looking at more than $50 million in costs by 2017 to upgrade equipment and find opportunities to reduce phosphorous in the water supply. Seventeen million of those dollars are estimated to cover part of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District's estimated $500 million overhaul of its water treatment plants to adhere to these standards.

Mayor Steven Ponto sent a letter to then-governor Jim Doyle, expressing considerable dismay that the state had become just the second in the country to adopt the EPA guidelines.

"All of us want to have a cleaner environment. We just have to smart about how we get there," Ponto said.

"Rather than beat municipalities over the head to go from very little to even (less), it'd be good to bring the overall level down in the agricultural areas."

Part of the issue, Ponto explained, is that agricultural areas are treated differently than urban areas that already produce very little phosphorous and are generally effective as keeping levels low.

In Brookfield, the standard has been 1 milligram of phosphorous per liter of water. These new standards would have Brookfield attempting to reduce that more than 10 fold to 0.075 milligrams per liter.

"We're getting 90 percent of phosphorus out of our water now," explained Public Works Director Tom Grisa. "We're now being asked to get 90 percent of the remaining 10 percent."

Weighing options

Grisa said there are two main options for dealing with this problem. The first is a major technological overhaul, for which Brookfield has budgeted $35 million in 2016 for its own technology upgrades as well as $17 million in 2017 for the MMSD project.

About half of that $35 million would be covered by the communities that contract with Brookfield for service. The city's Fox River Water Pollution Control Center serves Pewaukee, the town of Brookfield and Menomonee Falls as well as the city of Brookfield.

"The reality is, I don't know for sure that we will spend that amount of money in that given year because I will work very hard to try to push back these expenditures and also reduce them through these other options," Grisa explained.

"But since I don't know how that will take shape, I'd rather show the worst-case scenario and we can always reduce the number."

Brookfield will have the option to look for opportunities in the area to lower overall phosphorous levels, which could offset the amount they have to spend on technology changes. There is a plan whereby the city could go to a farmer and find ways to reduce that area's phosphorous reduction in return for a longer-term deadline for meeting these standards.

Finding time and money

Under the new permit Brookfield will have to get this year, the city would have five years to comply. With this adaptive management approach, the city would get an extension and possibly be able to reduce phosphorous levels without having to make major changes at the treatment site.

That, Grisa said, could mean the overall price tag for this project could come down over time.

"We are all very new in this; no one has gone through this process yet, so what I'm doing is placing in the capital plan what I think is the most expensive option and yet the most reliable option because we know we can do it with technology.

"We know we can do it at the plant and we would be in control of it."

Ponto said the city would have had to borrow the money to pay for these projects no matter what, but the property tax freeze from the state level does put a strain on the city's financial flexibility.

With tax revenues stagnant, it would take the city longer to pay down the debt, and possibly increase the overall costs with interest.

Ponto did add that it is possible a change in elected national leadership could change the scenario.

"You hope that some of this will get worked out as the political process goes along," he said. "This is an election year. We can hope for relief at the federal level."

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