Locals say Madison sewer district phosphorus decision threatens Badfish Creek

By: - May 4, 2023 5:45 am

An aerial photo of Badfish Creek, which officials are worried could be harmed by a Madison Sewer District decision to discharge more effluent into it. (Andy Hoernemann)

A kayak or canoe trip down the meandering Badfish Creek in Dane County includes some rapids and views of trout, crawfish and turtles in the water below. Now, a pending decision from the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) over where it discharges treated wastewater has local officials, paddlers and watershed groups worried about the creek’s future. 

MMSD currently sends about 8% of its discharge, or effluent, into Badger Mill Creek, which flows from its origin through the city of Verona and down to the Upper Sugar River. The other 92% of the district’s effluent flows into Badfish Creek, which flows through Oregon and into the Yahara River. Because of the district’s permit requirements with the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), it is currently trying to find a way to reduce the amount of phosphorus that is discharged into Badger Mill Creek, which needs to be reduced from 0.3 milliliters per gallon to 0.075 milliliters per gallon. 

Last week, MMSD staff recommended to its governing commission that the best way to achieve that goal is to shut off the effluent into Badger Mill Creek and redirect it into Badfish — reversing a decision made in the 1990s that water pulled from the Sugar River watershed should remain there. 

While some phosphorus in a body of water can promote plant growth, too much can cause harmful algal blooms, which is why the chemical is regulated by the DNR. Besides shutting off the water, MMSD considered adding additional treatment systems to the effluent that flows into Badger Mill Creek or working with other entities along the watershed to reduce the total amount of phosphorus that flows into the creek. MMSD staff decided that those options were either too expensive and energy intensive or provided an insufficient amount of phosphorus reduction. 

The possibility of shutting off the discharge into Badger Mill Creek — which has seen significant investment from Dane County, Verona and other communities through habitat restoration and the construction of adjacent footpaths — has local officials and clean water advocates worried that the loss of that consistent flow will cause the creek  to dry up. 

But to the southeast, rural communities along Badfish Creek are worried that the same decision will harm that waterway by causing too much water to flow through the stream and increase the amount of pollutants in a body of water that already faces issues with e coli. 

Local officials say that MMSD staff has proposed increasing the flow into Badfish without seeking input from them or the relevant watershed groups, despite the fact that the decision could have long-term effects on the stream — which includes stretches of water that kayakers and canoeists consider some of the best paddling in the area. 

In a statement, MMSD director of ecosystem services Martye Griffin said that the district discussed the plan with leadership at the Town of Dunn along the creek in a public meeting where members of the Friends of Badfish Creek watershed group were present. He added that the district is confident any increase in phosphorus in the creek can be handled by the adaptive management plan currently in place for the Yahara River watershed and that adding more discharge into the Badfish won’t increase the flow because it will remain capped at 75 million gallons per day and any excess will remain stored at the treatment plant.

“Moving all discharge to Badfish Creek would not result in an increase in flow rates entering the creek, and the creek would not experience any different flow conditions than it currently experiences,” Griffin said.

Local kayakers consider Badfish Creek one of the best paddling spots in south central Wisconsin. (Photo courtesy of Milespaddled.com)

Wisconsin kayaking blog Miles Paddled, which reviews bodies of water across the state for their paddling quality, has rated a section of Badfish Creek as one of the few five-star kayaking locations in the area. One of its writers, Madison resident Timothy Bauer, says Badfish is “one of the most treasured creek paddling opportunities in all of Dane County.” The increased flow could harm that resource. 

Despite MMSD’s assertion that flow won’t increase, one of the major concerns of  local officials and the Friends of the Badfish Creek watershed group is that the increased flow will cause erosion, which is already a problem in the stream. Bauer says increased erosion can make the stream more difficult to paddle because adjacent trees have no soil for their roots to grab onto, causing them to fall into the water and create potentially dangerous obstacles. 

He also says if the water level rises the creek could become impassable because it will be impossible for paddlers to squeeze under bridges. 

Bauer also says that the loss of recreational opportunities on the creek are nothing compared to the harm done by damaging the ecosystem that local wildlife relies on and notes that the shifting of the discharge moves a problem away from the quickly developing Verona area toward more rural parts of Dane County and into lower-income parts of Rock County, where the watershed eventually meets up with the Rock River. 

“Badfish Creek is one of those shining lures for the residents of Dane and Rock counties in particular,” he says. “To make that an unviable prospect for kayaking and canoeing because people can’t figure out the phosphorus issue in Verona, would just smack of a kind of soft environmental racism for Rock County in particular, but it would just be a detrimental loss for everyone in south central Wisconsin.”

Throughout MMSD’s decision-making process, officials at the local and county governments responsible for the creeks have complained that the district is singularly focused on reducing the phosphorus in Badger Mill Creek without considering the wider effects its decision may have on the area’s water systems. 

“One of our concerns I guess right now is that the studies that we’ve seen to this point studying the phosphorus issue with the Badger Mill Creek has looked in detail at that the the impacts to the Badger Mill Creek, but we haven’t seen any studies on how shutting off flow to the Badger Mill Creek will affect the Badfish,” says Rick Weitersen, the Rock County environmental health director. “That’s one of our main concerns is just that the whole picture be looked at. Not just the phosphorus issue, and not just the Badger Mill Creek, we look at all discharges and all potential effects, not just phosphorus.” 

Jim Post, who previously worked for MMSD and lives in the Badfish Creek watershed, says the district has successfully engaged with local agencies and businesses in the past to achieve clean water goals. But that strategy has not been used as the district looks for a solution to this problem, he says.

“It seems like they’ve completely abandoned working with local agencies and I think that makes it seem very heavy handed,” Post says. 

In making its decision, observers believe MMSD has chosen to consider cost and energy savings over any possible long-term harms to both bodies of water, according to Lynne Diebel, director of the Friends of Badfish Creek Watershed group. She says that in order to avoid a slight increase in the utility bills of the district’s customers, MMSD is putting two streams with important ecological and recreational values at risk. 

“I do think that if you were to have to choose between, you know, raising the rates slightly for the MMSD customers and the health of the streams, I would invariably pick the health of the streams,” Diebel says. 

The MMSD commission is in the process of gathering input on its decision with a public hearing on the issue set for May 11. The commission is set to make its decision at a meeting on May 25, where Post says he hopes the seven commissioners consider more than the short-term cost savings. 

“The commision needs to play the long game here,” he says. “They’re going to rely heavily on the experts and what the experts present to them as the information. I’m not optimistic they’ll do anything but shut off the pump to Badger Mill Creek, but I want there to be discussion and everyone go in with their eyes wide open that this could come back years later to being a very poor decision.”


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

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.