Faced with increasingly stringent regulatory requirements and limited resources, utilities are less able to rely on strategies of the past. Forward-looking utilities are instead seeking innovative, holistic solutions to improve environmental outcomes at reduced cost. As a Utility of the Future, Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) is embracing a watershed-based approach as it advances a new regulatory compliance strategy in Wisconsin known as adaptive management.
Like many clean water agencies, MMSD must comply with a stringent numeric water quality criterion for phosphorus. Most of MMSD’s 185-square-mile service area is located in the Yahara River Watershed, which is part of a basin-wide TMDL addressing both phosphorus and sediment.
Significant reductions in phosphorus loads are required from all TMDL source categories (permitted point sources, permitted MS4s, and nonpoint) to achieve compliance with TMDL phosphorus allocations. In addition to nonpoint sources, the TMDL assigns phosphorus allocations to approximately 30 municipal permitted sources (MS4s and treatment plants).
Traditionally, municipal permitted entities have each worked independently to meet regulatory obligations. They have used brick and mortar solutions that are expensive, resource intensive, discharge focused, and have limited geographic impact.
Instead of this traditional model, MMSD is leading a collaborative adaptive management approach in the Yahara Watershed. This effort began in 2012 with a four year pilot project called the Yahara Watershed Improvement Network (Yahara WINS). The primary goal of the pilot project was to test whether diverse stakeholders could work together toward the common goal of reducing phosphorus and sediment. Over 30 partners participated in this pilot project, including 4 wastewater treatment plants, 19 MS4s, 3 other point sources, a producer led farm organization, USGS and other partners.
Encouraged by the successful collaboration of the pilot project, Yahara WINs has now transitioned to a full scale project designed to achieve the phosphorus reductions required by the TMDL. This 20 year project has a total cost of $104 million dollars and a phosphorus reduction goal of approximately 106,000 pounds per year at full buildout.
Municipal participants have executed an Intergovernmental Agreement and are providing funding in direct proportion to their share of the total phosphorus reduction requirement. Funding for the nonpoint portion is coming from a wide variety of sources including traditional local, state, and federal programs, innovative programs like the USDA/NRCS Regional Conservation Partnership Program, and producer cost sharing. Agricultural producers in the watershed are also making significant direct investments to improve water quality.
The adaptive management project represents the lowest cost regulatory compliance approach for the watershed and for MMSD ratepayers. A traditional compliance strategy for MMSD would involve installing expensive filtration technology, with an estimated 20 year net present value cost of $140 million dollars. MMSD’s portion of the adaptive management approach has an estimated 20 year net present value cost of $12 million. Participating MS4s will also achieve significant savings compared to traditional phosphorus reduction approaches.
Innovation and collaboration are key characteristics of the Utility of the Future. MMSD is leading the way with the Yahara WINS project, delivering a fiscally and environmentally responsible approach with a holistic, watershed based focus.