By LeAnn R. Ralph
MENOMONIE — To comply with the current wastewater treatment permit, state Department of Natural Resources officials say the Village of Colfax must have pollutant trading in place by next spring.
Colfax is under an obligation to have pollutant trading up and running for the spring crop season, said Paul LaLiberte of the DNR’s Eau Claire office at the November 13 meeting of the Dunn County Planning, Resources and Development Committee.
Colfax’s current wastewater treatment permit expires December 31, 2013, and under the new permit that will be in place in January of 2014, Colfax will have even stricter phosphorus discharge limits, LaLiberte said.
The existing limit is one part per million. The new limit will be .01 parts per million.
Building a mechanical wastewater treatment plant that could remove excess phosphorus would cost an estimated $5 million.
Under a pollutant trading agreement, the Village of Colfax would pay farmers upstream to implement farming practices to reduce run-off from their farm fields at a ratio of two to one: two pounds of phosphorus from the farm fields for every one pound that is discharged from Colfax.
Colfax discharges about a thousand pounds of phosphorus per year into the Red Cedar River, and the water coming out of the tap in Colfax is already at the legal limit for phosphorus.
Phosphorus is the nutrient that fuels toxic algae blooms in Tainter Lake and Lake Menomin.
During the public comments portion of the meeting, Dick Lamers of the Tainter Menomin Lake Improvement Association said that every pound of phosphorus coming into the lakes produces between 500 and 750 pounds of blue-green algae, and that 625 pounds of phosphorus would produce one million pounds of algae.
All of the communities put together in the 1,900-square-mile Red Cedar Watershed only produce 2.5 percent of the total phosphorus load, LaLiberte said.
If the all of the communities in the watershed stopped discharging wastewater, phosphorus monitoring would not be able to detect any difference, he said.
Communities “are a small piece of the total load,” LaLiberte said.
Phosphorus treatment is very expensive, and that is why pollutant trading is viewed as a cost-effect way to reduce phosphorus in the watershed, he said.
“Putting all of society’s money into (wastewater) treatment plants is not the best way to get rid of phosphorus … agriculture is worth pursing to get rid of some of the phosphorus,” LaLiberte said.
The Barron County land conservation department brokers the Cumberland pollutant-trading program. Pollutant trading also is being explored in Dane and Columbia Counties, he noted.
The new phosphorus rule will affect most of the communities in Dunn County, including Ridgeland, Elk Mound, Wheeler, Menomonie and Downsville, LaLiberte said.
Menomonie is already treating for phosphorus, but the city will not be able to get down to the .01 limit, he said.
“That last five percent costs as much (to remove) as the first 95 percent,” LaLiberte said.
The PR&D committee and the Dunn County Land Conservation office will have to decide if the county wants to coordinate a pollutant-trading program, he said.
“Colfax is only the first one to knock on the door,” LaLiberte said.
Barron County started out with a range of methods, including no-till, buffer zones and rotational grazing, but eventually narrowed the pollutant-trading program down to no-till because it is easy to monitor, he said.
Under the old phosphorus rules, economic variances were given to accommodate communities that did not have much money to spend on reducing phosphorus.
Colfax has been operating under an economic waiver, but the new phosphorus rules switch the emphasis from the economic situation of the community to an emphasis on phosphorus limits for bodies of water, LaLiberte said.
Tainter Lake and Lake Menomin are both listed as impaired waters.
Pollutant trading is “a reasonably affordable option that is preferable to an economic variance,” LaLiberte said.
The cost of pollutant trading is between $4 and $8 per pound, compared to $20 a pound for treatment, he said.
The number of acres of row crops is increasing in the watershed, and there is more phosphorus run-off from row crop fields than from grasslands, LaLiberte said.
Everyone “can say, ‘what I do does not make a difference,’ and that’s true. Just one will not make a difference … but you can’t think that way. This is the sum total from everyone,” he said.
Seven or eight years ago, measuring the phosphorus run-off was a “big stumbling block” to pollutant trading, said Dan Prestebak, Dunn County conservationist.
But over the years, computer models have become more sophisticated, and nutrient management planning programs can calculate how many pounds of phosphorus run-off would come from a field or a barnyard based on the soil type and the degree of slope, he said.
Barron County looks for fields with the steepest slopes to be part of the pollutant-trading program because they are viewed as “high delivery” fields where the money will go the farthest in reducing run-off, LaLiberte said.
The Village of Colfax is looking at options for phosphorus treatment, said Jackie Ponto, administrator clerk-treasurer for Colfax.
“This is the first step,” she said.
“We are trying to be cost effective. We cannot administer and oversee (pollutant trading) ourselves,” said Mike Boyd, who retired as Colfax’s wastewater and water utility operator last December.
“We are asking that the land conservation department work with Colfax,” he said.
A new mechanical wastewater treatment plant would cost millions of dollars, “and Colfax can’t afford $5 million,” Boyd said.
“It would be financially devastating for Colfax to build a new wastewater treatment plant,” Ponto said.
“This is a way for society to deal with the problem without bankrupting communities,” said Bob Walter, chair of the PR&D committee.
PR&D committee members agreed that Dunn County should move forward with setting up pollutant trading.
Once all of the communities in Dunn County are dealing with reducing their phosphorus discharge under the new limits, the county may want to consider hiring someone to coordinate the program, LaLiberte noted.
The Dunn County Board was expected to adopt the 2013 budget the evening of November 13, so including a provision for pollutant trading for next year was not possible, Walter said.
A budget adjustment for 2013 could be a possibility, however, once costs have been determined, he said.
The Village of Colfax also is gathering information about other options to reduce or eliminate phosphorus, such as an irrigation system to water a crop that would use all of the discharge from the wastewater lagoon.
An irrigation system would eliminate Colfax’s phosphorus discharge all together.