Wisconsin’s phosphorus rule

Beautiful Early Spring Brings Early Algal Bloom As Well to Lake Wingra, Photo by Peter Patau.

Beautiful Early Spring Brings Early Algal Bloom As Well to Lake Wingra, Photo by Peter Patau.


The problem: Phosphorus has long been recognized as the controlling factor in plant and algae growth in Wisconsin lakes and streams. Small increases in phosphorus can fuel substantial increases in aquatic plant and algae growth, which in turn can reduce recreational use, property values, and public health. See Reducing Phosphorus to Clean Up Lakes and Rivers for more information about phosphorus as a pollutant.

Sources of excess phosphorus: Phosphorus entering our lakes and streams comes from “point sources” - piped wastes such as municipal and industrial wastewater treatment plants that release liquid effluent to lakes and rivers or spread sludge on fields; and from natural sources, including past phosphorus loads that build up in lake bottom sediments.

Phosphorus also comes from “nonpoint” or “runoff” pollution. Such pollution occurs when heavy rains and melting snow wash over farm fields and feedlots and carry fertilizer, manure and soil into lakes and streams, or carry phosphorus-containing contaminants from urban streets and parking lots.

Protecting human health and welfare: To protect human health and welfare, revisions to Wisconsin’s Phosphorus Water Quality Standards for surface waters were adopted on December 1, 2010. These revisions:

  • Created water quality standards for phosphorus in surface waters. These standards set maximum thresholds for phosphorus in Wisconsin’s surface waters. See Chapter NR 102 [PDF].
  • Set procedures to implement these phosphorus standards in WPDES permits issued to point sources discharging to surface waters of the state. See Chapter NR 217 [PDF].
  • Helped to curb nonpoint sources of excess phosphorus by tightening agricultural performance standards. See Chapter NR 151 [PDF].

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


Any permit reissued after December 2010 will be evaluated for phosphorus water quality-based effluent limits. Some phosphorus limits may be restrictive, while others can be easily met. Department staff has developed supporting resources to assist in phosphorus rule implementation including Guidance for implementation of Wisconsin’s phosphorus water quality standards [PDF]. Please note that this document may be evolved as the Department addresses more of the many unique circumstances related to phosphorus implementation.

Optimization: Many facilities will be required to optimize their wastewater treatment plant to increase the removal of total phosphorus. This optimization is part of a comprehensive program to achieve water quality standard based limits for phosphorus. The Department has developed a Phosphorus operational evaluation & optimization report worksheet [PDF] to aid in this effort.

Compliance Options:

  • Facility Upgrades: Facilities can choose to add treatment technology to their plant to comply with the new phosphorus limits. This is the traditional method used to comply with permit limits.
  • Water Quality Trading: Water quality trading allows point sources to offset their pollution load, and comply with phosphorus limits, by taking credit of other phosphorus reductions within the watershed.
  • Adaptive Management: Similar to water quality trading, adaptive management allows a point source to reduce other sources of phosphorus pollution within a watershed to achieve compliance with phosphorus requirements. Unlike water quality trading, however, adaptive management focuses on improving water quality, rather than simply offsetting a permit limit.
  • Economic hardship variances: In some cases, the available compliance options are simply too costly, and would result in an economic hardship for the community or industry. In these cases, the discharge can request an economic variance. Variances allow communities to take economically viable steps towards compliance. Forms are available to help streamline the variance request process.

    Contact Lisa Morrison for more information about economic variances.

Options to adjust restrictive phosphorus limits:

  • TMDL-derived limits: Total maximum daily loads (TMDLs) create a balanced approach to address point and nonpoint source of phosphorus pollution in watersheds currently impaired by excess phosphorus. Given this, point sources in TMDL watersheds tend to receive less stringent permit limits. To address excess phosphorus,
  • Site-specific criteria: Site-specific phosphorus criteria can provide facilities with less stringent phosphorus limits in cases where water quality goals are being attained, despite their being elevated phosphorus levels in the receiving water.
  • Variance waters: In some cases, surface waters are not capable of meeting the fishable or swimmable goals we would normally set for them. For example, some streams have too little flow to support a healthy fish community. In these cases, DNR can list the waters as “variance water” and can adjust permit limits according to the revised classification.

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

More information

Phosphorus webinar series: Informational phosphorus webinars have been developed. This webinar series explores implementing the phosphorus rules and includes phosphorus discharge limits for WPDES permittees, compliance schedules, adaptive management, and water quality trading. Consider viewing these short webinars if you are involved with WPDES permits.
Know the rule: Rule content is available for download:

To help explain the revised rule content in NR 102, NR 217, and NR 151, a question and answer-style rule summary document [PDF] has been created.

Factsheets: Several factsheets have been developed to summarize the phosphorus rule and innovative approaches to comply with this rule.

Adaptive Management and Water Quality Trading: See adaptive management and water quality trading for additional information about these innovative compliance strategies.

Other resources:

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

FAQ on new regulations

New legislation was recently developed to compliment the implementation of phosphorus water quality standards in Wisconsin. The DNR received questions regarding this new law and created this FAQ to help answer questions. Additional questions may be submitted to DNRPhosphorus@Wisconsin.gov.

1. What is in the new phosphorus rule?

The new phosphorus legislation is available for review (Senate Bill 547) [exit DNR]. Overall, the new phosphorus regulations extends the timeline of adaptive management to up to four permit terms, allows adaptive management to be used as a compliance option for TSS, and potentially creates a statewide variance for phosphorus. Learn more with a summary of the statewide phosphorus variance [PDF].

2. Can I apply for a statewide variance?

No. The Department of Administration (DOA), in consultation with the DNR, must first make a determination that compliance with water quality based effluent limitations for phosphorus is not feasible for point sources, or categories of point sources, in Wisconsin because it will cause substantial and widespread adverse social and economic impacts on a statewide basis. If this determination is made, the variance must then be approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) before individual point sources can apply for a statewide variance.

3. Does EPA need to approve the statewide variance?

Yes. EPA must approve all variances including the statewide variance.

4. When will we know if there is a statewide phosphorus variance?

The bill says that DOA has 240 days from the date the law was promulgated to determine whether phosphorus water quality based effluent limitations cause a substantial and widespread adverse social and economic impact to point sources or categories of point sources on a statewide basis. If this decision is made, DNR will then request EPA approval to begin implementing the statewide variance program.

5. Will the state stop issuing WPDES permits?

No. The DNR will continue to issue and reissue WPDES permits in accordance with state and federal law. If the statewide variance becomes available, and a WPDES permittee wishes to apply for this variance, DNR may accommodate this request upon permit reissuance.

6. Does the statewide variance replace adaptive management, water quality trading, or individual variances?

No. If the statewide variance is approved, this will become another option for WPDES permittees. It does not replace existing compliance options including adaptive management, trading or individual variances (Wis. Stat. 283.15, or Wis. Adm. Code NR 217.19 [exit DNR]).

7. Does the water quality-based effluent limitation change based on the new P rule?

No. The new law does not impact calculated phosphorus water quality-based effluent limitations. If a statewide variance is approved, the phosphorus water quality-based effluent limitations will be replaced with interim limits for up to three permit terms. See the summary of the statewide phosphorus variance [PDF] for additional details.

8. Can I use adaptive management for TSS?

Yes. Contact your regional adaptive management or trading coordinator for details or the statewide adaptive management coordinator:

» Amanda Minks

9. When would a person want to use adaptive management for TSS?

Some WPDES permittees have received restrictive TMDL-derived TSS limitations. Permittees with such limitations may wish to pursue adaptive management for TSS compliance. Visit TMDLs for additional information about TMDLs in Wisconsin.

Last revised: Thursday April 30 2015