DNR mulls 'impaired' county waterways

Four Douglas County waterways are poised to join the list of impaired waters throughout Wisconsin. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is seeking public comment on the proposed list.

Bear Creek in Superior is one of four Douglas County waterways that may soon be listed as “impaired” by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Phosphorus content is a concern for not only Bear Creek, but municipal water treatment facilities statewide facing new, stricter phosphorus criteria. Jed Carlson/

Four Douglas County waterways are poised to join the list of impaired waters throughout Wisconsin. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is seeking public comment on the proposed list.

A majority of these new listings - 183, including three in Douglas County - are for lakes or river stretches that exceed new, more restrictive phosphorus standards that took effect in December 2010. Many of these new phosphorus listings are in areas with restoration plans already in development and were waters that had never been previously assessed for phosphorus.

"The listing does not necessarily mean that phosphorus levels in these waters got worse," said Sharon Gayan, director of the DNR Water Quality Bureau. "Phosphorus levels may be improving in some, but not enough yet to meet these new standards."

Listing waters as impaired requires the state to develop restoration plans for them, Gayan said, and may make them eligible for state and federal cleanup funds.

More than 25 Douglas County waterways have already been listed for impairments ranging from E. coli and oil slicks to mercury, creosote and PCBs.


The new waterways include three with phosphorus issues - Bear Creek, Bluff Creek and the Pokegema River - and the Barkers Island inner beach for E. coli, according to a release from the DNR.

Phosphorus concerns

Phosphorus occurs naturally and is used in fertilizer, detergent and animal feed. It's in our food, our waste and in that of other animals, according to Adrian Stocks with the DNR's Water Quality Bureau.

Increased phosphorus can fuel algae growth; when it's reduced, water clarity increases. The first state-wide step to control phosphorus was taken in 1992.

New phosphorus criteria were set in 2010. Facilities were given seven to nine years from when the limit was first included in their wastewater discharge permit to comply.

The criteria focus on the amount of phosphorus allowable within each water body itself. Working back, each treatment plant's limits are determined by the water body in which it discharges, on a case-by-case basis.

The Village of Poplar is looking at spending between $1 million and $2.5 million to bring its phosphorus limits down from the current 7 milligrams per liter to the 0.075 milligrams per liter required under the new criteria.

Water currently being discharged from Poplar's wastewater treatment utility into Bardon Creek contains about 2.4 to 3.0 milligrams per liter of phosphorus, according to village President Randy Jones. Poplar's permit expires in 2019. A plan for phosphorus reduction must be submitted to the DNR by June 30.


"Our plan right now is to raise sewer rates by about 5 percent starting in January," Jones said.

That will cover manhole and lift station repairs, reducing the amount of water the village would have to remove phosphorus from, as well as engineering and planning costs for the next phase of phosphorus removal.

The City of Superior's wastewater treatment plant must drop its phosphorus output from 1 to 0.7 milligrams per liter by the end of March. The facility discharges into the Superior Bay, a much larger body of water.

"We think that with procedural changes we will meet the limit," said wastewater treatment plant engineering and operations manager Jon Shamla.

The move may result in less ammonia being removed, he said, which could lead to the need for an additional chemical polishing step. Shamla didn't anticipate an increase in cost to meet the new phosphorus limit, however.

In May, 31 Wisconsin state legislators sent a letter to U.S. senators and representatives seeking a revision of the state's stringent new phosphorus standards. They are, the letter stated, the "strictest in the country" and place an unduly large burden on point sources like municipal wastewater utilities, which can be easily regulated, instead of nonpoint sources, like agricultural operations.

Stocks said all cropland and livestock operations are required to comply with state agricultural standards and prohibitions, regardless of their size. Concentrated animal feeding operations have additional requirements and are regulated under discharge permits.

Nearly 80 municipalities - cities and villages, including Poplar - voiced their support for a second-look at phosphorus standards in a September letter to those same legislators, compiled by the League of Wisconsin Municipalities.


In supporting documents, village presidents and mayors were asked to estimate the cost for meeting the new phosphorus criteria.

A.J. Greisbach, president of the village of Nichols, estimated it would cost $1.5 million to meet the new standard. The village in Outagamie County, population 269, has a 2017 operating budget of $227,186 and a legal margin for new debt of $413,085.

"So, you can see the predicament this would put us in," Greisbach wrote.

Poplar spent $18,000 this year alone on engineering and consulting costs related to phosphorus reduction.

"We are a village of just over 600 residents with approximately 130 sewer customers," Jones wrote. "We already have a number of customers that struggle to pay their sewer bill and have various plans in place to help those with alternate payment options."

Eugene Schneider, president of the village of Whitelaw, said he's been told the technology does not exist for the village in Manitowoc County to get its phosphorus level down to the required 0.01 milligrams per liter.

"We could surely use some help!" Schneider wrote.

Options exist to extend the timeline, Stocks said, but specific criteria must be met and each variance must be approved by the Environmental Protection Agency(EPA).


Water quality criteria can be revised over time based on sound scientific rationale, he said. Any revisions would have to go through the rulemaking process and be approved by the EPA.

To find a full listing of impaired Wisconsin waterways, proposed and already listed, visit and search "impaired waters."

Public comment on the list is being taken by Dec. 29 by email at or by U.S. mail to Ashley Beranek, DNR, Water Evaluation Section (WY/3), Box 7921, Madison, WI 53707.

Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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