Competing conservation goals spark fight over the future of a creek and the Madison sewer district

By: - April 27, 2023 6:00 am

Badger Mill Creek in Verona has seen hundreds of thousands of dollars in trout habitat restoration, yet one sewer district decision has locals worried about its future. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

Dane County’s Badger Mill Creek, which runs from its source between Madison and Verona until it connects to the Upper Sugar River, is one of only a few designated trout streams in the county. A handful of municipalities adjacent to the water source, including Dane County itself, have spent significant amounts of money restoring fish habitats and installing nearby footpaths. 

Yet locals are concerned that all that investment, and an important natural resource in a rapidly developing part of the state, could be harmed because of a pending decision by the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD). 

Under pressure to respond to state regulators who are demanding that the district reduce phosphorus levels in the stream, the sewerage district is considering a simple yet controversial solution — cutting off the flow of water that partially feeds the creek from the entire Madison metropolitan area.

Since the 1990s, MMSD has returned up to 3.6 million gallons of treated wastewater, or effluent, to the creek every day as part of an agreement made with the City of Verona when it dismantled its wastewater treatment plant and joined with the Madison district. Now, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is requiring that the district find a way to reduce the level of phosphorus entering the stream. Some phosphorus in a body of water can promote plant life, but too much can cause harmful algal blooms. 

Under the DNR permit that MMSD was issued in 2020, and federal law, the district must reduce the amount of phosphorus it sends into the creek below 0.075 milliliters per gallon. Since the permit went into effect in May of 2020, the district has been utilizing “planning time” offered by the DNR to come into compliance with the requirements. 

Faced with a difficult and complex environmental problem, MMSD is weighing three potential solutions to reduce the phosphorus. On Thursday, the district’s commission is meeting to hear the staff recommendation on a solution. 

Option 1: more wastewater treatment

One option is installing additional treatment methods into the wastewater plant to remove more phosphorus from the effluent. But the problem with treatment is that it can be expensive to install and maintain and usually involves the addition of even more chemicals into the process. 

“It is an expensive alternative and negatively impacts the District’s goals of reducing energy consumption and the carbon footprint associated with manufacturing and transportation of chemicals,” MMSD staff wrote in a preliminary report on the issue.

Option 2: water quality trading

Another option would involve MMSD partnering with other entities along the creek in an adaptive management or water quality trading plan, in an effort to reduce the total amount of phosphorus entering the creek. 

Phosphorus often enters bodies of water through agricultural runoff, so finding ways to increase buffer zones and prevent that runoff can achieve reductions. MMSD is involved in an adaptive management plan with the other portion of its effluent, which flows into Badfish Creek and the Yahara River. 

The problem with adaptive management for Badger Mill Creek is that the district is the only entity on the water that faces a phosphorus requirement, so it’s the only entity on the hook with the DNR if the plan fails to achieve enough reductions. Also, there is a limited amount of agricultural land in the area to target. 

Even with those challenges, adaptive management is the favored solution for the watershed groups and local officials hoping to protect the future of the creek and the Sugar River. Verona Mayor Luke Diaz told the Wisconsin Examiner he believes it would be a “win-win” option, while Lindsay Foy, executive director of the Upper Sugar River Watershed Association, says adaptive management can be beneficial because it engages the whole watershed, yet she understands it would be difficult to implement. 

“I like adaptive management projects for many reasons. They engage many partners. There are a lot of cumulative benefits,” she says. “I understand MMSD’s challenge with that kind of larger watershed-based approach. I believe that would make MMSD the only regulated entity that would have to be reducing phosphorus. That definitely gives MMSD some challenges in making a project like that happen. They’re in a tough spot.” 

Diaz and Foy both said that if MMSD chose adaptive management, they would remain engaged on the issue and not leave the district in the lurch without any help putting together the partnerships required to make such a program work. But Martye Griffin, MMSD’s director of ecosystem services, says that even with those assurances, it’s not clear that such a plan would achieve enough reduction and the district would remain on the hook. 

“Looking at all the opportunities of people that are saying yes, still wouldn’t add up to the necessary reductions,” he says. “We’re not in a position to tell DNR, ‘Yes, we want to try this. We’re gonna get some folks on board and then if it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else.’ We actually have to put together a plan that is approved by DNR that specifically already lays out how reductions can be achieved and how compliance can be achieved and looking at the urbanized area, even with all the partners saying yes, that magical number still is not going to be attained.” 

Option 3: shutting off the water

The third option, which locals believe to be MMSD staff’s preferred solution and the one causing the most complaints from community members, is simply shutting off the flow of water from the MMSD system into the creek. 

Residents and officials are concerned that if the flow is shut off, the creek could dry out, which would destroy the natural resource for the people and animals who benefit from the stream. 

“It seems very clear that MMSD wants to shut off the water because it’s the easiest and most straightforward one,” Diaz says. “The effluent being returned is a safety net if there’s a drought.”

At the center of the fight over the decision is a fundamental disagreement between MMSD and residents over the long-term effect of turning off the water. The watershed groups and municipal governments warn that shutting off the water and diverting billions of gallons of water every year into the Yahara watershed is going to cause the water level to drop, potentially damaging the hundreds of thousands of dollars of fish habitat that have been installed and causing literal downstream effects for the watershed, which ultimately flows into the Mississippi River.

It seems very clear that MMSD wants to shut off the water because it's the easiest and most straightforward one. The effluent being returned is a safety net if there’s a drought.

– Verona Mayor Luke Diaz

MMSD conducted a study of the potential effects of turning off the water. This winter, the district slowly turned down the water until it was off and measured the effects, finding that even in a dry year, the levels remained virtually the same when the creek entered the Sugar River. But Diaz doesn’t think the study was comprehensive or long enough to achieve an adequate measurement. 

“I don’t think MMSD has done an adequate study of the issue,” he says. “This seems like a checklist thing where we have to do a study so we’ll do it for a couple weeks in February, but to really get a sense they should do a year-long study. I don’t think it gives an adequate picture. Also, [with] climate change there will be periods of more rain and periods of drought.” Of the study, he says, “It’s the kind of study you do when you’ve already made a decision.”

Griffin, who insisted that staff hadn’t chosen a preferred solution early in the process, says there’s no way a study could definitively show how the creek will react to climate change. 

“I would say that when you describe climate change, historic use, future prediction, it’s hard to get a handle on with a 50-year study,” Griffin says. 

The benefit of turning the water off is that the amount of phosphorus flowing into the creek from the MMSD plant would immediately drop to zero. But Griffin and Diaz do agree that shutting off the water isn’t as simple as it seems because it doesn’t make the phosphorus disappear, it just pushes it into Badfish Creek and the Yahara watershed where it would need to be dealt with by a group of organizations operating under an adaptive management plan

“They haven’t thought of the long-term implications or the long-term health of the system,” he says. “To me it’s like spinning plates, it could cause a problem in Badfish.”

Several experts noted that none of the solutions is perfect and each comes with tradeoffs that the MMSD commission will have to weigh. Yet the problem has caused a rift between MMSD, which is faced with solving one problem to comply with its permit requirements, and other groups more focused on the county’s waters as a whole. 

They haven’t thought of the long-term implications or the long-term health of the system.

– Luke Diaz

“It is a little frustrating, and maybe a little would be an under-exaggeration,” says Laura Hicklin, director of the Dane County Land and Water Resources Department. “It’s frustrating to see that these decisions appear to be made in silos from the district’s perspective, whereas at the county, we’re trying to look comprehensively at the entire watershed. And when I’ve tried to engage in district staff and talking about ‘can we layer all of these projects together and talk about them as a whole?’ They’ve been very clear with me that they’re not willing to do that. They will only engage with us in any one particular topic at a time. And I do have concerns that that limits our collective ability to make decisions.” 

Diaz says he feels like Verona’s perspective has been ignored and that MMSD’s decision could harm a remaining natural resource in a quickly urbanizing suburb as Epic Systems, the health care software giant, continues to expand and housing demand in the surrounding area continues to skyrocket. 

“It diminishes a resource the city of Verona and Dane County have invested in,” Diaz says. “It undermines the natural paths we’ve put in but it’s also bad for the environment. This whole area is rapidly developing. Epic is talking about adding 1,700 new positions and people need places to live. But we also need to preserve the natural areas we do have. If MMSD takes away its viability as a trout stream and less habitat for plants, for animals, that’s a loss for all of us.” 

After MMSD staff makes its recommendation on Thursday, a two-week written comment period will begin. A public hearing on the issue will be held May 11 and the MMSD commission is expected to make a final decision on May 25.


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Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.