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Wisconsin’s adaptive management

USGS Gage Station

USGS Gage Station.


Adaptive management is a phosphorus compliance option that allows point and nonpoint sources (e.g. agricultural producers, storm water utilities, developers) to work together to improve water quality in those waters not meeting phosphorus water quality standards. This option recognizes that the excess phosphorus accumulating in our lakes and rivers comes from a variety of sources, and that reductions in both point and nonpoint sources are frequently needed to achieve water quality goals.

By working in their watershed with landowners, municipalities, and counties to target sources of phosphorus runoff, point sources can minimize their overall investment while helping achieve compliance with water quality-based criteria and improve water quality. The Adaptive Management Technical Handbook [PDF] is available to help describe adaptive management and how to develop a successful adaptive management strategy.

Adaptive Management vs. Water Quality Trading: Although similar, adaptive management is different from water quality trading. In both cases, point sources can take credit for phosphorus reductions within the watershed towards phosphorus compliance. Because the practices used to generate phosphorus reductions may be the same, these compliance options are often confused with one another. Adaptive management and water quality trading have different permit requirements, however, making them different from a permitting and timing standpoint:

  • Adaptive management and trading have different end goals: Adaptive management focuses on achieving water quality criterion for phosphorus in the surface water; trading focuses on offsetting phosphorus from a discharge to comply with a permit limit.
  • Monitoring: Because adaptive management focuses on water quality improvements, in-stream monitoring is required under adaptive management; this is not required under trading.
  • Timing: Practices used to generate reductions in a trading strategy must be established before the phosphorus limit takes affect; adaptive management is a watershed project that can be implemented throughout the permit term.
  • Quantifying reductions needed: Trading requires trade ratios be used to quantify reductions used to offset a permit limit; the reductions needed for adaptive management are based on the receiving water, not the effluent, and trade ratios are not necessary in this calculation.
  • Eligibility: Adaptive management and trading have different eligibility.

For more information about water quality trading visit water quality trading.

Contact information: If you have questions, comments or feedback about phosphorus implementation, rule content, or adaptive management and water quality trading please email us.

Selecting adaptive management

Why select adaptive management?

  1. Permit compliance through adaptive management may be economically preferable to other compliance options.
  2. Point sources, and the nonpoint sources that work cooperatively with them, can demonstrate their commitment to the community and to the environment by protecting and restoring local water resources.
  3. Dischargers are given less restrictive interim phosphorus limits while they work to improve water quality under adaptive management; these less restrictive phosphorus limits can be permanent, if adaptive management is successful (water quality criteria is met).
  4. Adaptive management provides flexibility for permittees and their partners to learn from each other, and adapt as experience is gained. The adaptive management option can extend over a 15 year timeframe (up to three five-year permit terms). This time is given so the permittee can install phosphorus reduction practices, create new partnerships, and measure success.

Eligibility:Not all facilities are eligible for adaptive management. If you represent a point source facility considering adaptive management, follow these steps to determine the facility’s eligibility. The eligibility requirements for adaptive management are:

  • The receiving water is exceeding the applicable P criteria
  • Filtration or equivalent technology would be required to meet the proposed/new phosphorus limit
  • Nonpoint sources contribute at least 50 percent of the total phosphorus entering the receiving water

Finding in-stream phosphorus data: This evaluation is typically completed by the DNR when calculating phosphorus WQBELs for a given facility. Review DNR’s water quality database to make this determination prior to permit reissuance:

Surface Water Data Viewer.

Determining nonpoint source contributions: DNR has already completed this calculation for most permitted municipal and industrial facilities with phosphorus monitoring using a GIS based model called “Pollutant load Ratio EStimation TOol (PRESTO)”. To look up the point to nonpoint source ratio at a facility, or to find more information about the PRESTO model, visit:

Phosphorus tools, PRESTO.

Next step: Once you have selected adaptive management as your preferred compliance option and have determined that you are eligible for adaptive management, submit the adaptive management eligibility form [PDF] to your local DNR wastewater engineer, specialist, or adaptive management coordinator and begin developing an adaptive management plan.

Contact information: If you have questions, comments or feedback about phosphorus implementation, rule content, or adaptive management and water quality trading please email us.

The plan

The purpose of the adaptive management plan is to identify actions to be implemented that will achieve compliance with the applicable in-stream phosphorus criterion through verifiable reductions of phosphorus from point and nonpoint sources. One or multiple WPDES permitted facilities can be covered under the same adaptive management plan. There are nine key components to develop a successful adaptive management plan:

  1. Identify partners
  2. Describe the watershed and set load reduction goals
  3. Conduct a watershed inventory
  4. Identify where reductions will occur
  5. Describe management measures
  6. Estimate load reductions expected by permit term
  7. Measuring success
  8. Financial security
  9. Implementation schedule with milestones

See the Adaptive Management Technical Handbook [PDF] for details on developing a successful adaptive management plan. The adaptive management plan must be submitted to DNR no later than the due date of the preliminary alternatives evaluation in the phosphorus compliance schedule.

All final Department decisions relating to adaptive management will be publicly available at WPDES Permits on Public Notice.

Tips to developing the plan:

  • Seek out a variety of partners to help develop and implement adaptive management. This can include County Land Conservation Departments, DNR, local environmental or agricultural groups, lake associations, etc.
  • Start early. Adaptive management is a new option that builds new partnerships and tackles watershed concerns. Building effective partnerships and identifying opportunities in the waters can take time.
  • Prioritize management practices. Once on-the-ground practices have been identified try to prioritize them based on their proximity to the receiving water, time needed to establish, or their likelihood for success.
  • Keep communication lines open. Every adaptive management plan will be unique and as a new compliance option it is important to keep communication open between permittees, adaptive management partners, and regional DNR adaptive management coordinators.

Contact information: If you have questions, comments or feedback about phosphorus implementation, rule content, or adaptive management and water quality trading please email us.

Additional resources

Webinar series

Watch recorded webinars that cover a range of topics.

Topics include:

  • implementing Wisconsin’s phosphorus rule,
  • including phosphorus limits in WPDES permits,
  • compliance schedules,
  • adaptive management and
  • water quality trading.
Know the rule: Rule content is available for download:

Factsheets: Several factsheets have been developed to summarize the phosphorus rule and adaptive management:

Other resources:

Contact information: Regional adaptive management coordinators are available to help address technical questions or concerns you have about adaptive management. If you have questions, comments or feedback about phosphorus implementation, adaptive management or water quality trading please email us.

Last revised: Wednesday October 21 2015